The year in classical music was marked by challenge and determination as the pandemic continued its cultural stranglehold for much of 2021. But for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the year marked what promises to be a vibrant new beginning.
The ASO made a bold move in October when it named Nathalie Stutzmann as the orchestra’s new music director. Stutzmann’s appointment was heralded in The New York Times because she will be the only woman in charge of a major American orchestra. And her riveting performance at the podium that same week was charged with the promise of the future.
Despite the restrictions of the pandemic — live performances were streamed from empty concert halls until the beginning of the fall season when live audiences returned (mostly with vaccination and testing requirements) — Atlanta’s classical music world persevered, whether through virtual performances or (in the case of The Atlanta Opera) performing before smaller and socially-distanced crowds under a circus tent and then releasing lavish film treatments of the staged shows that streamed online.
Here are the highlights of the year in classical music, as selected and written by Pierre Ruhe, Mark Thomas Ketterson, Jordan Owen and Scott Freeman.
Gemma New conducts the ASO
Hearing New Zealand-born Gemma New conduct the ASO in late January was a truly transcendent event. Her conducting is something akin to a performative dance- animated and hypnotic, seeming to work off of some deep-seated internal logic that defies immediate understanding but still manages to instill in the orchestra a newfound vigor. New’s presence alone would have made this a memorable event but violin wunderkind Randall Goosby, performing Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, served to cement the event as one of the standout performances of 2021. His playing, much like New’s conducting, defies simple understanding. To have both perform together was to be shown new vistas of achievement in the realm of classical music. — JO
The ASO plays Mozart’s Concerto for Harp and Flute
The ASO’s April 8 concert spirited the audience through a buoyant journey from the tony salons of Paris to Imperial Vienna. Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp (notably, his only composition for the harp) joined with Beethoven’s jaunty Symphony No. 4 for a breezy musical evening that perfectly showcased the talents of two of ASO’s most treasurable players as well as those of their conductor, the magnificent Sir Donald Runnicles. Those who associate the Scottish conductor with the sweeping Romanticism of Strauss and Wagner were given a pointed reminder that this is a conductor who has given us lovely performances of Bellini and Gluck, as well as the classical composers represented here. Runnicles’ approach to these pieces, both of which find their respective creators at the lighter end of their compositional ethos, was delightfully fleet, airborne and almost conversational in nature.
We also had the opportunity to hear ASO principal flautist Christina Smith soar through Mozart’s intricate passagework with fluid pyrotechnical dazzle, not to mention the ineffable grace brought to the task by the delectable harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson. While their ongoing contribution to ASO’s overall orchestral fabric cannot be underestimated, these estimable musicians would shine as soloists anywhere. The two also enjoy a partnership outside of ASO in the Merian Ensemble, formed by Remy Johnson in 2018 with the goal of showcasing work by women composers of the past and present. Their musicality deftly exhibited why ASO is one the great American orchestras. One can’t help but think that Mozart and Beethoven would have loved their performances, too. — MTK
The Atlanta Opera’s The Threepenny Carmen
Throughout the pandemic, one Atlanta institution has stood out for its inventiveness and determination that “the show must go on.” The Atlanta Opera purchased a circus tent and in April staged The Threepenny Carmen outdoors in the parking lot of its normal home, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The modernized take on Carmen was set in a Texas flamenco bar and featured local actor Tom Key as the narrator. Richard Trey Smagur showed equal parts vulnerability and menace as Don Jose, and Megan Marino (alternating with Ashley Dixon) embodied Carmen’s sultry and seductive edge. It was a fulfilling and exhilarating moment to see such a well-conceived production, especially at a time when there were no other productions. — SF
Remembering “the Black Mozart”
The ASO’s May 20 concert was an acutely joyful affair. Two thrice-familiar pieces formed a comfy setting for a musical jewel by a long-suppressed composer whose prodigious body of work is now enjoying a grateful renaissance. Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges — known as “the Black Mozart” in his 18th-century Parisian milieu — was one of the most accomplished men of his time, and one of the era’s most prolific composers. Sadly, he is all but forgotten today. An extraordinary string instrument virtuoso, Boulogne left reams of compositions, among them the dazzling Violin Concerto in A Major, which brought the Grammy award-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich back to the ASO stage. Boulogne tailored the piece to showcase his own superhuman abilities, which renders the work virtually unplayable by anyone else, but Hadelich’s performance was jaw-dropping.
The concerto was programmed with Mozart’s sparkling overture to Le Nozze di Figaro and an account of Mendelssohn’s popular “Italian Symphony” that brimmed with Tuscan sunshine, all under the expert leadership of Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra music director Jerry Hou. Boulogne’s concerto, however, was something else, and a pointed reminder that there is a centuries-old legacy of composers of color that has been unjustly neglected for far too long. — MTK
The ASO hits a Latin groove
The temperature soared in Symphony Hall on June 3 with Latin Fiesta, a high-octane celebration of music from the Spanish-speaking world. This really was a dazzling display of stylistic versatility. Guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the ASO blazed their way through classic orchestral works from Manuel de Falla, the most celebrated Spanish composer of all, to the exhilarating output of some among the best young composers of today. Then some real thrills — piano legend Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined the ASO for a primal display of searing pianism in Tango Manos by celebrated film composer Aaron Zigman. Toss in David Balliet’s multicolor lighting washes and the excellent camerawork of ASO’s video production team and you had one of the most enjoyable home-streamed musical events imaginable. One could literally “dance as though nobody is looking,” as the saying goes, because nobody was. I seriously doubt anyone remained a couch potato while they watched this one. — MTK
The ASO performs Mahler and Barber
“A Mahlerian progression.” Thus was ASO film director Hilan Warshaw’s description of circumstances that culminated in the orchestra’s final concert of the season on June 10 — Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in a triumphant, fervently expressive performance under Spano. The work had originally been announced in a reduced chamber version due to restrictions imposed by Covid-19. Matters began successively loosening throughout the spring, however, and just as the season was to draw to a close fortuitously allowed for the 70-plus contingent of players onstage necessary for Mahler’s full, sweeping orchestration to be performed. The synchronicity of these developments, along with the presentation of a symphony whose artistic inspiration trades in the naïve optimism of an innocent child’s fantasies of Heaven, was too poignant to be ignored. Spano, the ASO and the evening’s soprano soloist Jessica Rivera responded to the event with incredible musicianship.
Also programmed was Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, another piece that alludes to the uncertainly of the human condition as seen through the lens of childhood. One could not have wished for a more affecting program with which to celebrate the conclusion of a season of streamed concerts mandated by the pandemic, and the announcement of an anticipated return to live performances in the fall. Warshaw’s production team enveloped proceedings with sepia-toned projected imagery that burst into vibrant color, much like the souls of music lovers who could finally experience the grandeur of full symphonic performance again. It was altogether extraordinary. — MTK
Nathalie Stutzmann takes the helm
No event will have more impact on Atlanta’s classical ecosystem in the coming years than the appointment of Nathalie Stutzmann, an early-music-contralto-turned-conductor, as the ASO’s fifth music director. During the endless pandemic, she led the orchestra for virtual shows; her first live concert in Symphony Hall with an audience on October 13 was the day she was named to the job. As the concert revealed, she has a special energy in her conducting: She electrified the ASO in standard works by Verdi and Tchaikovsky, with an uncommon clarity and fullness of interpretation.
Stutzmann will be the only woman music director of a big-budget U.S. orchestra, but it’s her artistic agenda — and her podium success at making it stick — that will be closely watched in our community and across the country. — PR
Guy Johnston and Chiao-Wen Cheng at St. Luke’s
Music at St. Luke’s opened its second season October 29 — the first was all virtual — with a rewarding in-person recital that exceeded expectation. Cellist Guy Johnston, a rising star, seems to have it all. He plays with the kind of understated (but technically perfect) virtuosity and charisma that makes it all look effortless. Pianist Chiao-Wen Cheng was nimble and always elegant, comfortable in the accompanying role. Their program covered a lot of territory, including a highly appealing new work written for Johnston by English composer Joseph Phibbs. — PR
Battle of the Keys
Atlanta’s chamber music scene turned virtual for much of the year, and found a new headquarters at the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. The chamber format offers unique opportunities for experimentation and conceptual planning. One such outstanding example was the October 29 “Battle of the Keys,” a set of duo performances with Julie Coucheron on piano and Jens Korndörfer on organ. The afternoon was fun, enthusiastic and lighthearted. Yet, the elegant simplicity of it all was moving. It was a testament to the transformative power of minimalism in a field dominated by sprawling complexity. — JO
Wang-Kavakos at the Schwartz Center
Superstar pianist Yuja Wang and violinist Leonidas Kavakos played moody, contemplative sonatas by Busoni and Shostakovich, each paired with a Bach sonata, at the duo’s November 4 concert in Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. In top form, the duo played off each other with dazzling compatibility and emotional intensity. You wait many years to hear a recital this poignant. — PR
Sir Donald Runnicles holds court
In a related pair of concerts, Sir Donald Runnicles set the ASO on fire in December. The first program on December 2 included a gorgeous, revelatory performance of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, with soprano Jacquelyn Stucker, a major discovery making her ASO debut.
A few days later, Runnicles conducted a deluxe concert version of Humperdinck’s fairytale opera Hansel and Gretel. Stucker was back again, as Gretel, with purring mezzo Kelley O’Connor, an Atlanta favorite, as her brother. Together these two shows felt like the most satisfying, most memorable performances I’ve experienced since the pandemic started. We’re all dying with anticipation for the Stutzmann era to begin, but it’ll be hard to say farewell to Runnicles’ annual visits to Atlanta — he just keeps getting better and better. — PR
In tribute to Robert Spano
The ASO’s two-night tribute to outgoing music director Robert Spano in November ranks high on my list simply because it brings balance to my perspective on the conductor himself. I’ve always held that his style is far too contained and “safe” in its middle-of-the-road delivery. The ultimate effect is an ensemble that feels unnecessarily constrained in its dynamic range. It’s in Spano’s affection for new and unexplored musical terrains that his conservative approach pays off. He knows how to bring a sense of order and decorum to the avant garde world, making it accessible and enjoyable for classical aficionados and newcomers alike. The December 18 program featured Michael Gandolfi’s new Piano Concerto, which was composed in Spano’s honor. The December 19 program, meanwhile, was anchored by “Everything Lasts Forever,” a composition by ASO bassist Michael Kurth. This two-night celebration of Spano’s championing of new composers showcased that balance and served as a tribute to the man and his best qualities. — JO