Robert Spano took the podium on Thursday to lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music by Sibelius, Grieg and Rachmaninoff capped off by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Soprano Jessica Rivera was the featured soloist in the first half of the program.
The concert opened with the tone poem “Tapiola” by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It was his final orchestral work, inspired by the legends of the great dusky pine forests of Finland that surrounded his home south of Järvenpää. The title is derived from Tapio, the forest god of Finnish mythology, and is a literal reference to the forests as his realm.
It was Spano who introduced “Tapiola” to the ASO, having led its first subscription series performance of the work in March 2008, and the orchestra took it to Carnegie Hall the next week. Sibelius’ music is one of Spano’s greatest strengths as a conductor, as was demonstrated again Thursday from the opening timpani strokes and swelling tutti chord that introduces the brief theme upon which the entire work is built. Conductor and players kept the magic going throughout.
That set the stage for several vocal works sung by Rivera, each a love song excerpted from a larger piece. Grieg’s “Solvejg’s Song,” from his incidental music to Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” was first up. The rest came from song cycles that were originally for voice and piano but later orchestrated: “Jeg elsker Dig” (“I Love You”), the third of Grieg’s early “Hjertets melodier” (“Melodies of the Heart”);“Den första hyssen” (“The First Kiss”) and “Var det en dröm” (“Was it a dream?”), respectively Nos. 1 and 4 of Sibelius’ “Five Songs, Op. 37”; and to close the first half, the wordless “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff, the last of his “Fourteen Songs, Op. 34” of 1912.
Rivera is no stranger to ASO audiences. Her collaborations with Spano show a great musical empathy between them. The last time I heard her was at the Madison Chamber Music Festival in May, with Spano as pianist. Large and small halls present different contexts, but Rivera’s glowingly lyrical voice and ability to communicate music and text stand out either way.
In the Rachmaninoff, clarinetist Ted Gurch had the honor of a final seven bars of duet with Rivera, where he played a sensitive recollection of the melody’s initial theme that went arm in arm with Rivera’s arching vocal line. It crested at a high C-sharp before gently descending to briefly meet the clarinet in a few notes of unison.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 constituted the second half of the concert. The last time the ASO musicians played it was during their recent lockout, part of a fund-raiser for the ASO Players Association on September 20 and 21, with former ASO associate conductor Michael Palmer at the helm. Before that, its most recent performance in an ASO subscription concert was in 2010, with Oliver Knussen conducting.
Under Spano’s baton, Beethoven’s best-known symphony did not ascend to the extraordinary, but neither did it descend to mediocrity — perhaps a matter of chosen tempi, although the overall balance among sections of the orchestra felt odd. For one, the clarinets and bassoons were on risers and audibly far more prominent throughout than the flutes and oboes, seated on the floor behind the strings.
The Scherzo was somewhat deliberate in pace, the Finale similarly broad. While this performance did not quite touch the magic of the first half of the show, nevertheless it brought hearty hoots of approval from some audience members, followed by solid applause from the majority.
The ASO will perform the concert again Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.