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The audience at Symphony Hall Thursday evening was robust, and the room at a glance appeared to be at near capacity. Perhaps it was the star power of featured violin soloist Midori or reverberations of the extraordinary guest performance by incoming musical director Nathalie Stutzmann at last week’s concerts, but whatever the case, the evening was refreshingly well-attended. With guest conductor Juanjo Mena in charge, the evening promised to maintain the momentum of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s strong, diverse and eclectic fall season.

The evening’s selections began with contemporary composer James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, a piece conceptually built on the Hebrew Sukkot or “Feast of the Tabernacles,” a notably joyous festival tradition. That festive nature was immediately apparent in the piece, which burst to life with cheerful, freewheeling vigor. Of particular note was Lee’s intricate but always melodious use of pitched percussion that seemed to sparkle across the melodic lines. It added an additional layer of sonic texturing and highlighted the upbeat vitality. It is always a treat to hear a composer who knows how to lean into the melodic potential of the rhythm section, something Lee provides in spades.

With so much conceptual adherence to the traditions of the Hebrew worship cycle, it would be more than reasonable to assume that the piece would be built around the harmonic systems of traditional Jewish musical styles such as Klezmer and Sephardic. But Lee seems to be leaning on far more contemporary stylings, creating a sonic world more reminiscent of vintage Hollywood than Hebrew folk stylings. It was a fun, cheerful and endlessly upbeat way to start the show.

Immediately apparent from the outset was the unique manner in which Mena conducts — it is a style which is fluidly hypnotic and defies easy categorization. He darts from one beat to the next with a motion that seems to be actively antagonizing the orchestra by showing restraint during furious uptempo passages and wide-reaching thrusts during the slower moments. For a modern piece like Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, the unorthodox style worked and served to enunciate the piece’s gloriously off-kilter structure.

He also knew well when to take a step back, restraining his odd stylistic choices to provide ample room for Midori’s stunning violin performance in the evening’s second piece, Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35. The piece was written at a time when Tchaikovsky had just entered into a deeply unsatisfying and wholly platonic marriage to a woman, which was likely intended as a front to distract from the potentially scandalous relationship he was believed to be maintaining with the young violinist Josef Kotek. 

Mena conducts the ASO in front of a near-capacity audience at Symphony Hall.

It was much ballyhooed in its initial release by critics and performers alike for its willful, almost aggressive ugliness. Compositionally, it is a work of angst and frustration that plays out in a highly imbalanced manner, leaving the orchestra largely dormant for extended sections, so much so that their occasional reemergence to accentuate portions of the violin solo is almost jarring to the senses. It is a soundtrack for the thoughts of a mind deeply divided and confused, and it requires a master player to draw out its redeeming qualities.

Midori, unsurprisingly, was more than up for the challenge. With her well-honed skill for slipping effortlessly in and out of her instrument’s various tonal voices, she proved to be the perfect purveyor of Tchaikovsky’s miserable inner monologue. Her performance was applauded with overwhelming enthusiasm from the audience, so much so that she returned to the stage for an unexpected encore violin solo of Bach’s Chaconne, Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor.

As if intending to provide a counterbalance to Tchaikovsky’s frustration, the evening would conclude with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120, a piece that he wrote shortly after marrying Clara Wieck, the love of his life. A far different sort of person than Tchaikovsky, Schumann was consumed, even in his warmer moments, with a sinister sense of vitality. There is something so aggressively emphatic in his arrangements that he almost seems to be pitting the instruments against one another, each vying to better embody the full grandiosity of the composer’s passions. It is a move that serves to make the work’s calmer moments feel like a gentle, carefree oasis and a welcome respite from the battle at hand.

This dichotomy served to strain the piece in the long run, which forced Schumann to rely on endless variations on a not particularly well-crafted melody to speed the piece towards a rather abrupt climax. The ASO was in fine form throughout the Tchaikovsky, handing in an admirable performance of a deeply uneven piece.

The evening’s most successful moment was undoubtedly Midori’s deft handling of the rapid fire soloing throughout Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D Major. She navigated the confusing, nuance-laden mania with graceful ease, calling to mind a master thespian who finds a new depth of meaning in the most arcane of Shakespearean monologues. Her presence on the stage at Symphony Hall is always a welcome treat.

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Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.

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