News: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s plans for 2015-16 strike a positive note

Photos by Jeff Roffman.
Photos by Jeff Roffman.
Photo by Jeff Roffman.
Photo by Jeff Roffman.

On Friday morning, May 8, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra publicly announced the programming and schedule for its upcoming 2015-16 season.

The season celebrates the centennial of the birth of Robert Shaw, legendary choral conductor and music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1967 until 1988, after which he was music director emeritus and conductor laureate until his death in 1999. He founded the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus in 1967 and the larger Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus in 1970.

The 2015-16 season marks the centennial of the birth of Robert Shaw, ASO choral conductor and music director from 1967 until 1988. Photo courtesy of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
The 2015-16 season marks the centennial of the birth of Robert Shaw, ASO choral conductor and music director from 1967 until 1988. Photo courtesy of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Reflective of the celebration, the season will include many performances of works strongly associated with Shaw. One of those, Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem,” led by music director Robert Spano, will be performed on Shaw’s birthday, April 30, at Carnegie Hall. That is fitting because Carnegie was the venue where Shaw literally began and ended his professional musical career, starting with the Collegiate Chorale and concluding with his week-long Robert Shaw Choral Workshops for choral conductors and singers. His final Carnegie Hall concert performance was in April 1998, when he conducted Bach’s Mass in B minor.

In a similar honorific vein, Spano and the orchestra will open the new season at Symphony Hall in mid-September with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). Spano will also lead Verdi’s “Requiem” in November and performances of Brahms’ “Requiem” in mid-April, two weeks in advance of the ASO&C’s performance of it at Carnegie Hall. Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles will lead the orchestra and chorus in Beethoven’s challenging “Missa Solemnis,” which was another life-long signature work for Shaw. In early March, ASO director of choruses Norman Mackenzie, the direct heir to Shaw’s choral legacy in Atlanta, will conduct “A Robert Shaw Choral Celebration,” a bouquet of selection drawn from choral-orchestral works closely identified with Shaw.

Not to be overlooked amidst the Shaw centenary is that the 2015-16 season also marks the 15th year of the artistic collaboration between music director Spano and principal guest conductor Runnicles. Spano will lead 12 of the 25 total subscription weeks in Symphony Hall, and Runnicles will lead three. Assistant conductor Joseph Young will make his subscription series debut near the season’s end, in May. If 25 weeks seems more than normal, note that “A Robert Shaw Choral Celebration” with Mackenzie conducting is one of the “Delta Classical Series,” as it should be, not a “special.”

For the other eight subscription concerts, one will find Olli Mustonen, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Thomas Søndergård and Peter Oundjian among the more recognizable names of guest conductors. There will be a plethora of guest vocalists — too many to name here — but the most familiar faces will include soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and baritone Nmon Ford. The ASO’s 2015-16 vocal artist-in-residence, bass Morris Robinson, will be heard. Soprano Laura Tatulescu will be making her ASO debut in the opening night concert.

(l-r) Donald Runnicles and Robert Spano (Photo by Jeff Roffman.)
(l-r) Donald Runnicles and Robert Spano (Photo by Jeff Roffman.)

The majority of guest instrumentalists leans in the direction of pianists, among them Jonathan Biss, Louis Lortie, Peter Serkin and Andre Watts. Violinists Karen Gomyo and Augustin Hadelich are also on tap this year. Soloists drawn from the ASO itself are concertmaster David Coucheron, cellist Christopher Rex, flutist Christina Smith, harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, and percussionists Tom Sherwood and Charles Settle.

Although not appearing in concert with the orchestra, the ASO will present violinist Itzhak Perlman at a special recital appearance on Sunday, October 18, in Symphony Hall with collaborative pianist Rohan De Silva.

Two familiarities have been restored in the upcoming season: the start times of Saturday and Sunday concerts. Saturday concerts will begin at 8:00 pm and Sunday concerts at 3:00 pm, as they were prior to the current season. Another switch in scheduling involves a change of name for the early 6:30pm Friday concerts from “First Fridays” to “Casual Fridays,” which affords the orchestra greater flexibility in presentation — no longer being handcuffed to the initial Friday of each month and more indicative of the intent of the idea: to draw audiences in to a shorter concert before they head home after work, as well as entice younger, more casually-oriented audiences who may go out on the town afterward.

Acknowledging the emphasis on Shaw-related repertoire this year, the breadth and range looks good. Among contemporary works, there will be four world premieres: two new works from composer Jonathan Leshnoff, one by Mark Grey, and one new work by a favorite among locally-based composers, Michael Kurth, who is also a member of the orchestra’s contrabass section.

One will notice there is an increase in subscription weeks with only two concerts at Symphony Hall. At first glance, that might be taken as cause for alarm, but it is not so: the ASO is widening its reach to the classical audience through an expansion of residencies with three institutions of higher learning: University of Georgia, Kennesaw State University and Reinhardt University — all of which have venues on campus that are noticably smaller than Symphony Hall, but which also have viable acoustics with which the orchestra has had positive experience. It is clearly a direct response to changing arts markets in the 21st century, especially that of classical music — a topic which ArtsATL will address more in-depth at a future date.

On the lighter side of programming is the expansion of the orchestral POPS! Series, mostly led by principal POPS! conductor Michael Krajewski; of good word as it shows expansion of programs which feature the orchestra, rather than the kind of touring shows that are absent of orchestral involvement or cover it over with pre-recorded audio. We must remember: ASO is an orchestra. That fact should be the primary factor which informs the direction of the ASO’s “pops” programming — in Symphony Hall, at least. So this is a good sign.

Digging into the ASO’s website, it appears some significant adjustments have been made within parts of management under the leadership of ASO interim president and CEO Terry Neal, which, from an outsider’s perspective, look like they are already setting the ship aright. Between this and the programming, and a general increase of good vibes, it seems as though the orchestra is primed for a positive outlook for the new season.

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