Review: ASO opens the season with a strong performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony”

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On Thursday evening, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus made their 2015-16 season debut with a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, otherwise known as the “Resurrection Symphony.” Music director and conductor Robert Spano led the performance, which also featured soprano Laura Tatulescu and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor as vocal soloists. The program will be repeated at Symphony Hall on Saturday evening.

Aside from the tradition of kicking off the season with “The Star Spangled Banner,” audience joining in singing, Mahler’s symphony was the only work on the program, totaling nearly 90 minutes duration without intermission. It was a marathon for the audience, but a splendidly powerful performance that was well worth it.

The first movement, from its opening notes, offered up a vital, strong feeling of assurance in the orchestra’s playing. There were 104 orchestral musicians on stage for this performance, 27 of them extras hired for the occasion to fill the requirements of Mahler’s expansive scoring for his second symphony. Only eight of the extras were added stands of strings. The rest were brass, woodwinds, extra harp and keyboard, and percussion. There were 173 singers in the ASO Chorus. It was a mighty force onstage matched by a near-capacity audience.

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Music director and conductor Robert Spano led the performance.

The second movement, a Ländler, was engaging in its more introspective delicacy. The third movement, marked “In ruhig fließender Bewegung” (“In quiet flowing movement”), is in many ways the work’s signature. It’s the work’s scherzo movement, but Spano wisely did not rush, even where the tempo bumps up pace in the score, to good effect.

That scherzo contains prominent passages for the contrabasses. It is worth taking opportunity to note that the ASO’s contrabass section has been going through some changes. This was the first ASO concert for the new principal bass, Colin Corner — the only new roster musician on the stage. Another section position was won this week by Karl Fenner of the Colorado Symphony. Fenner hit the international news when, flying home from the audition, Southwest Airlines managed to destroy both his heavy-duty instrument case and his instrument, breaking its neck just below the headstock.

Unfortunately, bassist Jane Little was missing due to recent vertebrae injury. The ASO program booklet contains a feature article about Little, who has reached yet another milestone by becoming the longest-tenured orchestral musician in the world. One of the original members of the ASO, this season is Little’s 71st with the orchestra. While she is expected to retire this year, her colleagues have expressed hope that she will be able to return to the stage for a while after recovering from her injury.

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Soprano Laura Tetulescu and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor performed with the ASO and Chorus as vocal soloists.

With the fourth movement came the voice of Kelley O’Connor, a recurring guest who is an Atlanta favorite. Her entrance was of a gossamer beauty which asked the audience to listen closely. In the concluding fifth movement the chorus joined in, singing at the top of their game. Tetulescu’s solo soprano voice floated over the choral texture, colored with emotions of the text without being overbearing.

Then O’Connor sang again, and Ken Meltzer’s translation, displayed on the supertitle screens, seemed especially poignant:

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:

Nothing of you will be lost!

What you longed for is yours!

What you loved for,

What you fought for!

It immediately impressed, however unplanned, as emotionally connected to the state of the orchestra as it begins this new season after so much turmoil and tragedy suffered over recent years. The implications of the “Resurrection” metaphor in this performance was not lost on attentive observers.

In the end, special kudos are due to both the ASO Chorus and the orchestra’s expanded brass section, but Spano, the orchestra, chorus and soloists as a whole rendered a compelling opening night performance which bodes well for the new season overall.

After the concert was over, a VIP reception was held in the High Museum’s atrium, at which spirits were high both about the concert and the ASO’s current financial status, in comparison to the time of last year’s reception. In the midst of the accolades, ASO interim president and CEO Terry Neal noted that over half of the fundraising for the endowment of 11 additional ASO musicians has been accomplished in less than a year, underwriting the positions of six so far. The original goal was to raise the total amount within four years. Neal challenged the assembled to finish the job by April 30, Robert Shaw’s birthday.

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