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ASO Music Director Robert Spano returned to the stage last week to lead a stellar program of Walker, Chopin and Shostakovich. (Photos courtesy of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra)

Review: Under Spano’s baton, the ASO takes a compelling emotional journey

Music director Robert Spano returned to lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra last week in a program of three disparate pieces that each reflect their respective composer’s emotional reaction to specific life events. Interestingly, each work presented was also either derived from elements of its creator’s earlier compositions or served as inspiration for successive musicians to add compositional touches of their own. The concert was recorded at March 30–April 1 at Atlanta Symphony Hall for a streamed performance April 22.

George Walker’s 1946 Lyric for Strings is a reworking of the second movement (titled “Lament”) from his String Quartet No. 1. The piece was conceived as a memorial to his grandmother who had passed away the previous year and was written when the composer was 24. Although Walker is remembered for his formidable series of “firsts” (first African American composer to win the Pulitzer, among other achievements) and produced a plethora of music throughout his long career, the Lyric possibly remains his most popular work. The ASO performance was direct and almost nakedly emotional — especially in the interminable final chord, which Spano and his players delivered with ineffable delicacy.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2’s history is a trifle confusing. Written in 1829 when the composer was all of 19, it was really his first concerto but bears the “No. 2” designation because his second one was published first. He probably didn’t entirely orchestrate the work himself, which has opened the door for tweaking by others, including Alfred Cortot and Mikhail Pletnev. The piano line has remained consistent however, and it’s a beauty. In a brief interview, the ASO’s soloist — the Bosnian virtuoso Pedja Mužijević — presciently remarked that the concerto was as close as he could come to performing opera on piano. 

Chopin was obsessed with the fluid virtuosity of the bel canto singers of the era, particularly the Polish soprano Konstancja Gladkowska. Although the excruciatingly shy young composer never expressed his yearning adoration for her directly, her influence is palpable here. 

Mužijević was stunning in this piece and exploited the music’s singer-like qualities with great sensitivity. The Bellini-esque passagework of the first movement was glittering and delivered with nimble precision. The second movement brought a wealth of little touches delivered with the flowing line of an elegantly embellished vocalise, including lovely execution of the descending trills in the early measures and sparkling gruppetti throughout. There was some notably responsive work from the woodwinds and horn. A dizzying descent down the keyboard brought the piece to a bravura finish.

Bosnian virtuoso Pedja Mužijević performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the ASO.

The ASO program concluded with a splendid account of the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony in C Minor, Op. 110a. The symphony is actually an arrangement for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai of the composer’s String Quartet No. 8, written in 1960 shortly after Shostakovich was reluctantly convinced to join the Communist Party. Though formally dedicated to “the memory of the victims of fascism and war,” Shostakovich privately verified that it was in fact a memorial to himself. As such, the work is peppered with quotations from his earlier works, including the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (which had famously drawn the ire of Stalin), as well as his First Symphony and the First Cello Concerto. 

Spano and his players outdid themselves here, employing the explosive agitation and dissonance of the Allegro molto to fine expressive effect, then transitioning delightfully into the dancelike, oddly disquieting waltz rhythms of the Allegretto. The ominous series of three crashing chords in the Largo (variously suggested to represent gunshots, or fateful knocks on doors prior to the corralling of political dissidents) was done chillingly before the players gave way to the sorrowful aura of the final movement.

The virtual concert was distinguished by exceptionally attractive visuals and excellent camerawork. This was particularly evident in the Chopin — by fortuitous happenstance, the warm wood tones and structural lines of the piano’s interior mirrored the coloring and architectural detail of the hall itself in a manner that was most pleasing. Reflections of Mužijević’s fleet finger work as well as the bowing of the strings behind him that were caught in the instrument’s black lacquered surface made for some dazzling shots. Toss in a few well-considered camera fades and a sort of visual legato emerged that set the auditory experience off perfectly (think Fantasia).

The performance was movingly dedicated to the memory of recording engineer Michael Bishop, a longtime member of the ASO media production team who made innumerable contributions to the orchestra’s recorded legacy.

The concert will be available to watch online for the next 30 days for those with an ASO virtual membership.