Review: Under Joseph Young, ASO performs Dvořák’s crowd-favorite Symphony No. 9

Assistant ASO conductor Joseph Young with guest violinist Joseph Swensen. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
Assistant ASO conductor Joseph Young with guest violinist Joseph Swensen. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

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On Thursday night at Symphony Hall the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by assistant conductor Joseph Young, performed a concert of music by Barber, Dvořák and Lee, with violinist Joseph Swensen as guest soloist. The entire program will be repeated Saturday night, while a shortened “Casual Fridays” program (absent Lee’s music) will be performed tonight at 6:30 p.m. Both will take place at Symphony Hall.

Thursday’s performance opened with “Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula” by American composer Dr. James Lee III. Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1975, Lee is an associate professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula” was the result of a commission from the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium and was premiered by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Orchestra in October 2011.

“Sukkot” is one of the three pilgrimage festivals of Judaism — translated into English as “Feast of Tabernacles” but sometimes called “Feast of the Ingathering” because of its association with the annual harvest. Lee pairs that idea with the “celestial harvest scene” in the Book of Revelation as coming through the Orion Nebula (identified as M42 and NGC 1976 in astronomical catalogs), a diffuse nebula in the constellation Orion that is both bright enough to be visible to the naked eye at night and the closest region of massive star formation to Earth.

Composer James Lee III
Composer James Lee III

The 10-minute work opened with a loud roll on snare drum and suspended cymbal, then seven powerful quarter-note strokes on bass drum, followed by a unison call from the horns that emulated the sound of a shofar. With another round of bass drum strokes, flourishes from the entire brass section ensued, before the full orchestra joined in the celebratory mood. Contrasting music in the middle offered a more dreamy, almost weightless feeling of space flight, before the opening materials returned and the music built itself up to a final, abrupt tutti burst of sound.

Frankly, an uncredited audio on Lee’s website offers a clearer, more secure impression of the work than Thursday’s ASO performance. There is a temptation to play the louder sections as swirling hoopla, whereas bringing out the interplay in these complex louder passages instead would benefit the emotional verve and momentum leading up to the work’s emphatic ending.

In a pre-concert discussion, references were made to composers John Adams and Toru Takemitsu as influences on Lee, but these were not audibly evident in this particular piece. Instead, it felt like Lee was going down much the same stylistic road as Philadelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon, though perhaps not traveling in the same lane.

Violinist Joseph Swensen joined Young and the ASO for Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, which the orchestra had most recently performed in October 2013 under guest conductor Susanna Mälkki with ASO concertmaster David Coucheron as soloist. The concerto is signature Barber, predominantly lyrical in its first two movements plus a sizzling “perpetual motion” finale.

In addition to being a violinist, Swensen is also a conductor and composer. Of those three, he is perhaps most active as conductor, which may somewhat explain his odd stage presence. Throughout the concerto, Swensen would often turn decisively to his left while playing, toward Young on the podium and away from the audience. Then when he was not playing, he completely turned his back to the audience. One might have expected that of a guitarist in a jam band playing rock music — even while playing — but it is unusual, to the point of bizarre, to see on the classical stage. Nevertheless, the performance was quite fine, even given the visual distraction.

The concert concluded with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, subtitled “From the New World.” It is so popular as a symphonic standard that many of the musicians in the orchestra could probably play it in their sleep (though none did). It was a “just what everyone was expecting” kind of performance, satisfying and competent, but without any fresh insights from Young into this well-worn work aside from a few personal but not radical choices of tempo. The second movement was lovely in its sentiment, with the famous tune in the English horn that later became the song “Goin’ Home.” With the conclusion of the final movement, the ASO sent the audience home as very happy campers.

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