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ASO review: Spano and orchestra join with pianist Emanuel Ax for a “must hear” night to remember

For early arrivals, the ASO played to an audience seated in the orchestra's chairs. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
For early arrivals, the ASO played to an audience seated in the orchestra's chairs. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

On Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra opened its last set of regular subscription concerts before December’s mad rush of holiday specials takes over its schedule. The concert featured the music of Jean Sibelius and Johannes Brahms, led by Music Director Robert Spano with pianist Emanuel Ax as guest soloist.

But wait, there’s more! Starting at 6:45 p.m., an hour and 15 minutes before the symphonic concert, Ax and four ASO principal string players — concertmaster David Coucheron, principal second violinist David Arenz, principal violist Reid Harris and principal cellist Christopher Rex — performed the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, by Brahms in a special pre-concert recital. The players were oriented to perform not toward the hall but toward the orchestra’s chairs, where audience members were encouraged to sit on a first-come basis. When the chairs filled, others listened from seats in the hall. Admission was free to those who held concert tickets.

Piano and strings play equally important roles throughout this work; Ax and the ASO musicians played as equal partners. The engaging performance also foreshadowed Ax’s character as collaborative soloist.

The first half of the concert proper comprised the final two symphonies by Sibelius, Nos. 6 and 7. The Finnish composer is one of Spano’s strong suits as a conductor. Symphony No. 6, written in 1923, is radiant and winsome, as aglitter as sunlight on newly fallen snow. No. 7, written the next year, is joyfully vital and passionate, intended to be played without a break between movements. In both cases, the orchestra and Spano brought forth compelling performances.

The second half was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. Thursday’s performance demonstrated once again why Ax is one of the genuine luminaries among piano soloists and collaborative pianists in chamber music.

As in his first piano concerto, Brahms here makes a special effort to treat piano and orchestra as equal partners, rather than soloist against an orchestral accompaniment. The best performances, then, are those where the pianist is not only a featured virtuoso but also a musician who listens well as a collaborative member of the ensemble.

This is true of the entire concerto, but there are a couple of places that specifically spell it out. One is the initial bars of the first movement. Associate principal horn Susan Welty was in the first horn chair for the Brahms, and her playing of the exposed opening five bars, which introduced the main theme, was spot on. Ax answered each phrase with gently arpeggiated chords. Woodwinds, then strings, interceded for another four bars before Ax began a solo cadenza that led up to the entrance of the full orchestra, which boldly restated the main motif introduced at the beginning by the solo horn.

The third movement is also notable: during the first 22 bars, before the piano even enters, there is a significant cello solo. Rex, though visually hidden from much of the audience by the piano, performed it splendidly, with the final three notes dovetailing into Ax’s entrance. The solo cello returned again later. This time, the piano joined with fluttery, feathery triplets and trills at a key change, and the duo continued over an orchestral accompaniment until the movement’s final chord.

At the conclusion, Ax was so anxious to have Rex take a bow with him that Spano had to urge the pianist to bow first in acknowledgment of the audience’s enthusiastic applause. He did so, but he got Rex to come out and stand with him. In the second ovation, Ax climbed over the podium to shake the cellist’s hand and bring him back to the other side of the piano for an arm-in-arm bow.

All in all, the concert was a very strong showing by the orchestra — a “must hear” without gimmicks. A final performance (without the pre-concert recital) will take place tonight in Symphony Hall.

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