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A Universal Sandwich

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/03/2008 -  
Jean Sibelius: Tapiola
Christopher Theofanidis: The Here And Now
Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

Hila Plittmann (Soprano), Richard Clement (Tenor), Nathan Gunn (Baritone)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Norman Mackenzie (Director) Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano (Conductor)

Robert Spano should have been greeted with catcalls, beer-bottles and boos from the full house last night. For yes, Spano had been “traded” seven years ago from Brooklyn to Atlanta, which was bad for da bums, but terrific for Peachtree Street.
Named Conductor of the Year last year by Musical America, he has been conquering the world.

But this was not baseball, this was the austere Issac Stern Auditorium, and it is doubtful if he misses Brooklyn. We, however, who loved the borough just because he had brought so much modern music and treated classics so classically, do miss him badly.

Last night’s concert showed just why Spano is a member of the musical pantheon. He took three chances, and succeeded to a degree with each of them. Starting with Sibelius’s Opus Ultimum dealing with woodland gods, he finished with the complete Ravel Daphnis et Chloé also about woodland gods. And these two works sandwiched in a 21st Century piece which could have embraced woodland gods, but instead kept to the universal all-encompassing god of a Sufi mystical poet.

But Spano’s gamble with a New York audience was improved greatly, since his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus had achieved world fame with another New York transplant, Robert Shaw. And under Norman Mackenzie’s present direction, it has a massive and mighty force.

They shone highest with The Here And Now, a half-hour piece, by the 41-year-old Texas composer, Christopher Theofanidis. Taking 13 fragments by the Persian poet Rumi, he avoided making them “mystical”, but brought color and light to the massive forces. The results were mixed. The women’s chorus in Spreading Radiance could have come from the Bach Magnificat. Lines starting “Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated…” were highly effective with vibraphones and harps with the chorus. Other sections could have been written with any words. And the one duet for soprano and tenor in unison had an unfortunate resemblance to “Bollywood”, or even Caribbean music.

Still, this was easy to hear. It was not all serious. Nathan Gunn narrated with his rich baritone two funny bagatelles, the many stentorian climaxes were dramatic, and the 30-odd minutes went by with almost mystical speed.

In fact, the opening Tapiola by Sibelius took half the time but seemed far, far longer. This was his last piece, and he confessed many times to a) not wishing to write it, b) drinking far too much whiskey while composing, and c) taking back the manuscript because he didn’t like it.

One sees that last point readily enough. Spano took it fairly slowly, which made the pain of throbbing strings, occasional fanfares and over-tinkered attempts at sylvan atmosphere only more long-winded. He was a fine symphonist, but this was no symphony. Tapiola was warmed-over tricks and half-hearted sound effects.

On the other hand, the complete Ravel ballet is a true rarity, and Spano’s wordless chorus and huge wonderful orchestra made it sing. One regretted deeply that the program notes didn’t give the names of the sections of the ballet, since some of the music—not too much—was instrumentally complex but musically something of a filler. The more familiar parts were lush, rhythmic and displayed the Atlanta Symphony color at its utmost. I challenge any orchestra to take the swirling sumptuous sounds of the finale with as much expertise as this always stunning ensemble.

Harry Rolnick



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