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The Shaw 100th: Atlanta Symphony debuts the program it will take to Carnegie Hall later this month

On Thursday at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, led by music director Robert Spano–with soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Nmon Ford as guest soloists–performed a concert comprised of the iconic “Ein deutsches Requiem” by Johannes Brahms and the world premiere of “Zohar” by Jonathan Leshnoff. The concert was repeated at Symphony Hall on Saturday evening. 

The Brahms “Requiem” will be presented again on April 27 at Hodgson Hall at University of Georgia in Athens, along with Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 2, in advance of the concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City on April 30 by the ASO and Chorus that celebrates the Robert Shaw Centenary, which will include both Brahms’ “Requiem” and Leshnoff’s “Zohar.” 

shaw-300x250_360-1Atlanta audiences have had relatively frequent encounters with the Baltimore-based composer’s music in the past few years. In March 2014, the ASO and Spano performed Leshnoff’s Flute Concerto with Jeffrey Khaner, principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as soloist. November 2015 saw the world premiere of Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 2, commissioned by the ASO and again with Spano conducting. 

Most recently, this past February, Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra The Knights made their Atlanta debut at Emory University’s Schwartz Center, performing Leshnoff’s Violin Concerto with violinist Gil Shaham as soloist.

ASO audiences got another Leshnoff premiere this week with his cantata, “Zohar,” which opened the concert. The composer was not present for the performance. The very same night, his new Clarinet Concerto was also being premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Leshnoff was in Atlanta for a rehearsal on Tuesday, then in Philly on Wednesday for a rehearsal of the concerto; he became ill on Thursday, enough so that he was advised not to travel back to Atlanta.

“Zohar” is a musically approachable work, even if much of its text is of rather esoteric intent, inspired by Jewish mysticism–much of it expressions of superlative praise or declamation of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The greater part of the cantata is devoted to the chorus, though much of the choral writing seemed comprised of punctuated chords and very short pieces of phrases, rather than long-breathed passages. Some very difficult later choral lines emulate syncopated instrumental ones heard earlier in the work.

The performance served as a prelude to the ASO's concert at Carnegie Hall in on April 30 to celebrate the Shaw 100th.
The performance served as a prelude to the ASO’s concert at Carnegie Hall in on April 30 to celebrate the Shaw 100th.

By contrast, the glistening voice of Jessica Rivera was given long, silky vocal phrases in a setting of part of Psalm 8. Baritone Nmon Ford was offered a sincere setting about an uneducated shepherd whose literacy was limited to the Hebrew alphabet, but through which he achieved spiritual connection–though the sung text itself was somewhat poetic doggerel.

The work’s final phrases in the chorus rock back and forth between chords, much like the conclusion of “Neptune” at the end of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” as they fade away into the nothingness of spiritual space.

In the midst of the ASO’s Robert Shaw Centenary celebrations this season, it is not at all surprising that Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem” (“German Requiem”) is at front and center, and the principal work to be featured when Spano leads the ASO and Chorus at Carnegie Hall on April 30–what would have been Shaw’s 100th birthday. There is some historical reciprocity in tow.

Under Shaw's direction, the ASO elevated from a regional orchestra.
Under Shaw’s direction, the ASO elevated from a regional orchestra.

On April 3, 1997, the 100th anniversary of Brahms’ death, Shaw led a performance of “Ein deutsches Requiem” at Carnegie Hall with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and–surprise–the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. In his review of the concert, New York Times critic James R. Oestreich wrote, “Of all the great choral works Mr. Shaw has mastered, the ‘German Requiem,’ with its embracing humanity and earthy, unsentimental spirituality, seems the most ideally suited to his temperament.”

Notably, there are not one, but two recordings by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, both released by Telarc. The first was released in 1984, with Shaw at the helm (Telarc 80092), and the other with Spano conducting, released in 2008 (Telarc 80701). While comparison of the two discs is tempting, it is not the purpose of this review.

Nevertheless, as witnessed live in Thursday’s concert, Spano has what one might call a broader interpretation of the work–resulting in noticeably slower overall tempi than Shaw. While it is a work which places emphasis on “consolation,” it is consolation “with hope” in many places throughout. The result under Spano’s baton proved more often of stately emotional sentiment than joyous in those bright, luminous moments.

Rivera made lovely, emotionally lucid work of her only solo in the piece, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“You Now Have Sadness”). For his solo part, Ford’s middle and upper registers were suitably clean and clear, but what Brahms demands in the lower end of the solo baritone’s range came out with more rattle and tenuity than power and depth. The chorus was satisfyingly good all evening, both with the new and the familiar. New Yorkers should expect an outstanding presentation at Carnegie.