The charismatic American conductor James Gaffigan returned to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for what proved to be a musically satiating and socially notable streamed concert on May 27. The event marked the first time the symphony has performed under more relaxed safety guidelines since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gone were the rows of plexiglass fortresses, and while masks were still employed, one could applaud a fuller contingent of ASO players than has been heard for some time.
This was a particularly happy development in terms of the first selection performed: Street Song, a delightful piece for brass orchestra by conductor/composer Michael Tilson Thomas. The work was written for the Empire Brass in 1988 and dedicated to the composer’s father. It intriguingly weaves three songs together into a playful musical interlude of great appeal.
It is always interesting to hear works that highlight a specific section of the orchestra. That is especially the case with brass. Brass blips tend to pop through orchestral fabric a bit more obviously than those from other instruments and are sometimes rather unfairly singled out. No need for concern here. The ASO’s excellent players (and we got all 14 of them!) distinguished themselves with a charming, disciplined performance that swept us gleefully along through the score’s occasionally dissonant lyricality and teasing Gershwin-esque jazz riffs to a perfectly executed diminuendo in the final moments. Banner work from all involved.
The balance of the orchestra returned to the fold for Wood Notes by William Grant Still. Often called the dean of African American composers, Still made history as the first Black musician to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra when his Afro-American Symphony premiered at the Rochester Philharmonic in 1930. Gaffigan commented in an introductory interview of the difficulties he has experienced from various artistic administrations in programming Still’s compositions, his suggestion often countered by arguments that they are too long. That cannot be said about Wood Notes. Inspired by the poetry of J. Mitchell Pilcher, Still’s 1947 effort is only about a quarter-hour long, and presents an enchanting depiction of the American countryside. It is a minor piece perhaps, but should be better known.
The work is something of a tone poem, which the ASO’s players resonated to sensitively. The rippling waters of the opening movement “Singing River” were deftly captured by the harp, while the xylophone and celesta suggested the splashing of scattered droplets. An interplay of the winds and strings created an aural painting of swirling leaves in “Autumn Night” while the final, roguish “Whippoorwill’s Shoes” was delivered with charm and great humor.
Dvořák’s monumental Symphony No. 7 provided the evening’s pièce de resistance. The 1885 composition is probably the great Czech composer’s finest symphony and is generally regarded as one of the supreme achievements in symphonic literature post-Beethoven. Those who associate Dvořák with the folksier aura of his earlier works may have been in for a surprise here. The symphony’s sound world was darkly assertive, formidably lush and more than a little bit nationalistic in its evocations of the pain and resilience of Czech people — almost a “mini-opera” as Gaffigan put it.
That said, the very individual, almost peculiarly affecting quality that permeates so much of the Czech repertoire is everywhere apparent here and was expertly delivered by Atlanta’s players. The opening Allegro maestoso was graced with exceptional lyricism and grew to a marvelous crescendo that boasted perfectly controlled timpani at its conclusion. The Scherzo vivace was delightful, and likely recalled Dvořák’s more familiar Slavonic “voice” for many listeners, with its infectious rhythms – the orchestra virtually danced through the movement, and so did we. Matters resolved with a theatrical account of the Allegro with all its stirring expressions of patriotic vision.
This is emotional music, and Gaffigan is quite the emotive conductor. His fervency in the finale of the Dvořák matched the score’s own and brought the program to a satisfying conclusion.
Gaffigan alluded to a special enthusiasm in this concert, given the opportunity for ASO’s instrumentalists to be more fully together once again. It showed. This was a lovely performance, and ultimately an optimistic one for players and audience alike.
The performance will be available online for the next 30 days as part of the ASO’s virtual Behind the Curtains series.