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ASO review: Runnicles’ emotional Bruckner and a jolly Mozart concerto with Spano

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This weekend’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra program was originally designed as a send-off for Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, whose home base has migrated from the San Francisco Opera to the Deutsche Oper Berlin and whose career is increasingly based in Europe.

This year also marks a decade that Runnicles and Music Director Robert Spano have partnered, as tag-team maestros, in building the ASO into the increasingly splendid instrument we hear today. They’ve collaborated on stage just once before: at the start of their tenure in Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos.

Runnicles has since re-upped for just one more season in Atlanta. And the orchestra now seems more heavily invested in promoting its music director, who will soon be on his own at the top of the ASO’s masthead. So the festivities switched rationales, or at least added a few others: as a celebration of Spano’s tenure and a look into his future, as a celebration of his joint conductorial tenure with Runnicles, as a commemoration of the “Atlanta School” of composers, and more.

As I wrote in my AJC review, Thursday’s concert, in large part, celebrated two men coming into full midlife maturity as artists. It hasn’t been a smooth progression — who would have expected it to be? — but in every facet of their art, these conductors have grown in stature, solidified in impact and consistently deliver intriguing, often deeply satisfying, evenings in Symphony Hall.

Thursday’s concert opened with a fanfare, one of 10 the ASO has commissioned over the 2010-11 season to mark Spano’s decade as music director. The latest was by California composer Mark Grey (at left). His “Ahsha” was inspired by Spano’s fascination with ancient Persia. The title is derived from sacred Zoroastrian texts.

Although Grey is best known as the high-tech “sound designer” for distinguished American composer John Adams, his “Ahsha” was all acoustic, with no electronics in the sonic mix.

The two-and-a-half-minute fanfare opens with low brass and horns in a majestic, perhaps exotic, setting. As the rest of the orchestra joins in, the mood darkens and starts to churn and the soundworld becomes prismatic, begging us to invent visual images. But the themes are not clearly characterized, the orchestration is sometimes hazy and the work rambles. Still, a fanfare succeeds if it sets up a jubilant mood for what follows, and “Ahsha” had us ready to celebrate.

The party piece was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. An only occasional pianist — at least in public — Spano was at the keyboard; Runnicles was on the podium. As Spano charged from backstage to the piano bench, he looked nervous and announced to the audience that it was Mozart’s 255th birthday. “Sadly, he couldn’t join us!,” he added, manically, to laughter. (Concert photos by Jeff Roffman.)

But an air of levity, especially from Spano, meant that this dark-key concerto would likely not probe the depths for which it is admired; the evening’s pianist was lowering expectations.

Indeed, he played the notes but never seemed to lose himself in the music. Yet in the slow, lyrical “Romance” movement, he offered many pleasant insights — emphasizing a harmonic pivot or illuminating the counterpoint. In addition to being a part-time pianist, Spano is a some-time composer, and he played his own cadenzas — a brief, showy solo passage — borrowing ideas from Mozart and Beethoven and sounding at once classical and harmonically modern.

Musically, the bigger event of the evening was Runnicles conducting Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, a sort of Gothic cathedral in sound, built up of massive stone blocks. Over recent years, Runnicles has matured into an uncommonly wise and sometimes profound interpreter, especially of Austro-German Romanticism, with its glimpses into unfathomable depths of emotion. His Bruckner delivered another peak experience from the Scottish conductor: searching, mystical and heartbreaking.

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