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Review: A rousing and emphatic return to the stage for locked-out ASO musicians

Soloists David Coucheron (left) and William Pu tplay Bach's "Double Concerto" as Michael Palmer conducts.
Soloists David Coucheron (left) and William Pu play Bach's "Double Concerto" as Michael Palmer conducts.

On Thursday evening, locked-out players of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed under the moniker “ATL Symphony Musicians” in the first of two consecutive nights of benefit concerts at North Atlanta High School, in the 600-plus-seat theater of its Center for the Arts. The audience filled the intimate theater to capacity, including a number of folding chairs that were brought in to supplement the regular seating. The wide thrust stage was large enough to accommodate the orchestra, although the number of audience seats was only a little more than one-third that of Symphony Hall.

Designed more for musical theater and other performing arts than for concerts as such, the building’s acoustics are on the dry side for music, although it was evident that the musicians could more easily hear one another than on the stage of their home hall — an observation verified by their comments afterward. Even though the high school hall did not allow sound to “bloom,” the immediacy of the sound had direct impact upon the audience.

The concert opened with Rossini’s popular Overture to his comic opera “The Barber of Seville,” followed by J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, featuring ASO Concertmaster David Coucheron and Associate Concertmaster William Pu as soloists. After an intermission, the concert concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

It was certainly unusual for these musicians to assemble in concert as a full performing orchestra outside the auspices of the ASO. The last time that happened was in late 1996, when the work stoppage was a strike; this time it’s a lockout. The two concerts are free to attend, but the audience is encouraged to make donations to help cover the health care costs of the musicians while they try to reach a new contract with the ASO’s board and management.

Both sides said Wednesday that talks are taking place, and the ASO Players Association submitted a new proposal earlier this week. The ASO season is scheduled to begin October 4.

Because the ATL Symphony Musicians wanted to put their best musical foot forward in a way that engaged the symphony-going public, their choice for a conductor to lead the concert was critical in terms of both musicianship and legacy. They chose Michael Palmer, who was associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 10 years. He was hand-picked in 1967, at the age of 21, by then-conductor Robert Shaw.

Although some of the orchestra’s older musicians know Palmer from those Shaw-era days, some of the younger ones know his conducting only from playing in the orchestra of the acclaimed Bellingham Music Festival in Washington state, where Palmer is artistic director and conductor, for two weeks in the summers. Palmer has held those positions since the festival was founded in 1993, although he moved back to Atlanta in 2004 to teach and conduct the orchestra at Georgia State University.

Both ASO patrons who remember Palmer from his earlier days in Atlanta and young musicians who have performed under his baton more recently were among those in the audience.

As is often the case with multi-use theaters, the volume of sounds from instruments placed behind the proscenium risks disadvantage, particularly the farther upstage they are. Sound can get lost in the curtains around the theatrical rigging system rather than going out to the audience. From my perspective in the third row center, this gave greater prominence to the strings, particularly the first violin and cello sections. But some trusted observers reported superb balance from seats nearer the back of the room.

What was most compelling about the string sound from the closer vantage point was the immediacy, the ability to “smell the rosin” in the detail. That does not come without risk, as the sound of the instruments is exposed. Overall, Palmer and the orchestra successfully met that challenge. The appealing tunes of Rossini’s popular Overture were played with energy, and while vigorous orchestral tuttis may not have “boomed” as in a large, resonant hall, they had a tight, forceful presence.

Violinists Coucheron and Pu were positioned slightly in front of the proscenium and the long curved reflective structure above, which helped them achieve a sweeter lyrical sound. The musical dialogue between the soloists was joyfully keen, and Palmer sensitively attended to the relationships between them and the orchestra in an engaging rendering. The Second Movement, with its lilt and finely crafted detail of phrase, was most graceful and the outer movements were joyfully energized, with multiple ovations for the soloists.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, from its famous opening notes, was handled in a way that made the best use of the acoustics of the space. In the First Movement, Palmer did not allow the rests that follow the fermatas to expand to the lengths often heard in halls where there is much greater reverberation. Yet in this acoustical context, a lot of inner detail of the music could be heard well. Most remarkable were clear sectional unisons, notably the ornately lyrical variations played by cellos and violas in the Andante con moto Second Movement.

The rollicking Scherzo and majestically forceful Finale brought the evening to a rousing close that earned triple ovations from the enthusiasm-primed audience. The beaming faces of the musicians on stage made clear their appreciation in return.

According to a notice on the back of the program, the ATL Symphony Musicians also have scheduled a “United in Music” chamber music marathon at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur on Sunday, September 30. Some of the details of how it will be promoted depend on what happens in the negotiations over the newest offer to ASO management made by the musicians this week.

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