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The year in review: Orchestra lockout, controversy fail to stop flow of beautiful music

John Adam's "A Flowering Tree" as performed by the ASO and ASO Chorus. (Photo by J.D. Scott)
John Adams’ “A Flowering Tree” as performed by the ASO and ASO Chorus. (Photo by J.D. Scott)

For classical music in Atlanta, 2012 was dominated more by offstage events than by performances, but among the latter there was close competition for the year’s “Top Five”:

1. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s semi-staged opera “A Flowering Tree” by John Adams takes the top spot this year, concluding the orchestra’s 2011-12 season in early June at Symphony Hall. The ASO’s “theater of a concert” format worked especially well in this luminous production, bringing a contemporary opera to life in an effective semi-staged production.

2. Running an extremely close second was the performance by pianist Emanuel Ax with the ASO at the end of November, including the pre-concert chamber recital on Thursday with four of the orchestra’s principal chair players. In addition to the high-level of music making, Ax’s generous human spirit was a positive factor in making this concert special for the audience and members the orchestra alike

3. Amid events at Atlanta’s evolving alternative venues, Sonic Generator’s performance of Steve Reich’s “Drumming” was a summer standout in late July at the Goat Farm Arts Center. It was a highly energized and engaged performance of the 1971 bellweather minimalist classic for percussion ensemble.

4. Taken together, the orchestral and chamber fundraising concerts in September by the ASO Players Association at North Atlanta High School and Eddie’s Attic were notable for their vibrant, passionate atmosphere and grass-roots enthusiasm of the audience for the musicians.

5. The Atlanta Opera’s 2012-13 season-opening production of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre proved a strong showing for the company in the wake of the sudden departure of General Director Dennis Hanthorn. It bodes well for the future of the company, even if the company takes a more conservative direction in its main-stage programming. At least for a while.

The artistic successes of the two “big box” ensembles — the ASO and the Atlanta Opera — were overshadowed by clouds of turmoil as their new seasons loomed in the fall. The contentiously heated labor negotiations between ASO management and players culminated in a lockout of the musicians in late August. Earlier that month the Atlanta Opera’s Hanthorn resigned, without much public explanation either from him or the company.

While the Atlanta Opera moved on without Hanthorn or extended controversy, the emotional wounds from the ASO labor struggle continue to run deep for many of the musicians, though they vowed to continue to perform at their highest levels. In late September, during the lockout and immediately after it ended, the ASO Players Association mounted successful independent orchestral and chamber concerts in support of the symphony musicians during those uncertain days.

After the contract was finally signed and the new season began, three top people in the ASO’s management suddenly left, one through retirement and two through dismissal. That added to the weight of controversy surrounding the orchestra, as did the subsequent revelation by the Woodruff Arts Center that one of its middle-management employees had embezzled $1.4 million over a period of five years.

The Chamber Cartel performs at the Goat Farm Arts Center.

Nevertheless, it was a good year for Atlanta composers, new-music and chamber ensembles, and alternative venues. Alvin Singleton’s “Different River,” his longest orchestral work to date, was given a notable premiere by the ASO in May.

Three local ensembles devoted to new music were born in 2012. Chamber Cartel performed its first concert on New Year’s Day and presented one a month throughout the year. The Terminus Ensemble, with a mission of performing music by Atlanta-based composers, launched in early March. And the rock-edged Clibber Jones Ensemble made its debut at the Drunken Unicorn, with a second performance at Karvana in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood. Another new ensemble, the Peachtree String Quartet, oriented toward traditional classical repertoire, made its debut in April. Also, the Atlanta Chamber Players continued their “Rapido!” composition contest on a national scale.

A significant small venue stepped into the game when Eddie’s Attic, the well-known acoustic venue in Decatur, launched a classical music series with the Riverside Chamber Players in mid-July. On Atlanta’s West Side, the Goat Farm and {Poem88} made strong impressions this year as alternative venues. Spivey Hall, one of metro Atlanta’s premier high-end concert venues, drew attention when it acquired its new Hamburg Steinway concert grand piano, immediately grabbing the attention of its top-end guest recitalists.

On a somber note, Atlanta lost two important members of its classical music community in the summer: contralto Florence Kopleff in July and attorney Neil Williams in August. Their devotion to the city and its arts was immeasurable.

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