Review: Atlanta Symphony attracts big crowd to Verizon for program of American music

Robert Spano (left) with principal clarinetist Laura Ardan. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)
Robert Spano (left) with principal clarinetist Laura Ardan. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)
Robert Spano (left) with principal clarinetist Laura Ardan. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)
Robert Spano (left) with principal clarinetist Laura Ardan. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)

On Sunday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented a concert of familiar American symphonic music — Bernstein, Gould, Copland and Gershwin — at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Alpharetta. Music director Robert Spano conducted, with ASO principal clarinetist Laura Ardan as featured soloist.

The concert was introduced by ASO board chairman D. Kirk Jamieson, who remarked that the estimated audience in attendance would fill Symphony Hall twice. He also said plans were underway for additional Verizon performances by the ASO in the spring.

A query to ASO offices Monday confirmed that the audience Sunday night was roughly 3,500, indeed just over twice the capacity of the Woodruff Arts Center’s 1,730-seat Symphony Hall. While there are formative plans in place for additional ASO concerts at Verizon, no specific dates or details have yet been confirmed.

Certainly, by comparison with Symphony Hall, Verizon Amphitheatre is enormous. Sunday’s audience filled about half of the venue’s 7,000 fixed seats, ignoring the open lawn behind those that raises the total capacity to some 12,000. However, the audience was also larger than the capacity of the ASO’s gated concerts at Piedmont Park — and those are free; this was paid admission.

Spano leads the orchestra at Verizon.
Spano leads the orchestra at Verizon.

After ceremonially playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” Spano and the orchestra opened the concert proper with two works by Leonard Bernstein: “Overture to Candide” (1956) and “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” (1957).

Of all of Bernstein’s music for the orchestral concert stage, these are surely his two most frequently heard works. Both have plenty of technical hurdles for the musicians, but still have impact in venues where the ability of musicians to hear each other across the stage is less than ideal.

The “Cool” segment of the “West Side Story” music, however, could have been both faster and more dramatically intense. It isn’t actually about being cool, but trying to seem cool and keep the lid on the pressure cooker. When it reaches its climax after the long build of cool weaving lines over ominous crescendos in the strings and percussive smacks, the music should be, if nothing else, scathingly hot — à la the screaming 1950s jazz band sounds of the controversial Stan Kenton.

Morton Gould’s “American Salute” (1942) is a work frequently included in outdoor civic and patriotic concerts. Perhaps too much, but it’s a barn burner with a bang, and easy to play well at outdoor venues.

After intermission came Aaron Copland’s “Clarinet Concerto,” with principal clarinetist Laura Ardan as soloist. Like Avner Dorman’s double percussion concerto heard in this past week’s ASO subscription concerts, Copland’s work was originally scheduled to be played by Ardan last fall, but the lockout caused shakeups in repertoire. 

To accommodate Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and the premiere of a work by Atlanta composer Richard Prior in that late November concert, Copland’s concerto got bumped and Ardan played Claude Debussy’s considerably shorter “Première rhapsodie” instead.

Ardan played the piece wonderfully, but was not sufficiently amplified over the volume of the orchestra, making her often difficult to hear. When the orchestra did not play, as in the cadenza or when the skittery and jazzy rhythms of the last movement come to the fore, she could be heard. But at least up in the rows of seats beyond box seats with tables, the volume on her microphone was insufficient. It was an unfortunate circumstance, given the quality of her performance.

If there is any consolation for those who are devoted fans of Ardan, there exists an obscure 2002 recording of Copland’s concerto by her with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, Paul Gambill conducting, on the Naxos label.

The final work on the printed program was George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (1928). Gershwin’s musical travelogue has a big, broad enough ending as a crowd pleaser, but didn’t really feel like a genuine “closer.” Then Spano came back on stage to lead an encore of John Williams’ music from Star Wars. Like Gould’s “American Salute,” Williams’ near-foolproof orchestration works very well in outdoor venues. It gave the concert the kind of final punch that was needed. 

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