Review: Higdon’s “Concerto” a tour de force for ASO; pianist Biss plays Beethoven with nuance

,em>Pianist Jonathan Biss performs again tonight and Saturday with the ASO.
,em>Pianist Jonathan Biss performs again tonight and Saturday with the ASO.
,em>Pianist Jonathan Biss performs again tonight and Saturday with the ASO.
Pianist Jonathan Biss performs again tonight and Saturday with the ASO.

On Thursday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presented a concert of music by Jennifer Higdon and Beethoven, led by ASO music director Robert Spano with pianist Jonathan Biss as guest soloist. 

Higdon’s “Concerto for Orchestra” was performed during the concert’s first half, with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) after intermission. The program will be repeated in its entirety Saturday evening at Symphony Hall at 8 p.m., but a short “Casual Fridays” concert, including all of Beethoven’s concerto and only the first movement of Higdon’s, will be offered up tonight (Friday) at 6:30.

The piece composed by Higdon was one of eight works commissioned for the centennial of the Philadelphia Orchestra and, incidentally, the only one by a Philadelphia composer. It premiered in June 2002, catapulting Higdon into the national eye as composer. 

Only five months after that debut, the ASO and Spano premiered a newly commissioned piece from Higdon, “City Scape.” Higdon was born in Brooklyn, but spent the first decade of her life in Atlanta and fashioned that work as a musical tribute to the city. Within the year, Spano and the ASO also performed “Concerto For Orchestra” — not on a subscription series concert, but for a special Season Opening Gala concert on September 13, 2003.

Composer Jennifer Higdon.
Composer Jennifer Higdon.

The very next day, Spano and the ASO recorded both “Concerto for Orchestra” and “City Scape” for Telarc in a total of two sessions. That disc went on to win a Grammy for Best Engineered Classical Recording. So the work has had a close relationship to the ASO, despite the fact that this week’s performances formally mark its classical subscription series debut.

Higdon was present for Thursday’s performance, having flown in Wednesday in the midst of a whirlwind schedule that had her flying back out Friday morning for a gala for Opera Philadelphia, where some of her scores are to be auctioned. Opera Philadelphia will be presenting the East Coast premier of Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain in February.

Her optimistic, diversely-hued “Concerto for Orchestra” proved an impressive tour de force for the orchestra. The work opens with chimes and timpani, the strings quickly entering, starting a process that builds up to an orchestra tutti, adding sections much like adding stops on a pipe organ. The scherzo-like second movement celebrated the strings, beginning with pizzicato but exploring many means of articulation, concluding with a “snap” pizzicato.

The third movement afforded each of the orchestra’s principal players a solo before moving on to feature the different sections — winds, strings and brass. The natural consequence, then, was that the challenging fourth movement was, most notably, performed only by percussion, harp, piano and celesta. 

It began quietly, the most rhythmically placid part of the entire work, then began to accelerate through multiple tempo changes — in the composer’s words, “like a Victrola being wound up” — to an ostinato pattern that segued into the fifth and final movement. From there, it focused on the entire orchestra, albeit with a clear recognition that an orchestra is made up of many individuals working together.

After intermission came Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), composed in 1809 under conditions of advanced deafness, the shelling of Vienna by Napoleon’s artillery, then French occupation of the city. The nickname, “Emperor,” was not Beethoven’s own, rather one imposed by the concerto’s English publisher, Johann Cramer, after the composer’s death. It bears no political message — rather, it implies the music’s character.

The bearded and bespectacled Biss was appropriately regal on his performance: his trills and runs in the first movement were impressively clean and lucid, the subsequent adagio thoughtfully expressive, the concluding rondo happily buoyant.

Spano and the orchestra were well in sync with Biss, their combined performance nuanced and comfortable. Biss seemed almost reluctant to take solo bows despite repeated calls back to the stage to do so by an ongoing ovation. It seems Beethoven’s imperial music didn’t go to his head, though it was a heady rendition of the work.

After he’s done with this week’s ASO concerts, Biss takes off on a nationwide jaunt to perform six solo recitals featuring music of Mozart, Schoenberg and Schumann. He’ll then cap off the month’s end with four performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major with the New Jersey Symphony and conductor Christoph König.

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