Review: Led by Donald Runnicles, the ASO puts an elegant spin Schubert, Mozart and Debussy

Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles took his first turn at the podium. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)
Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles took his first turn at the podium. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)
Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles took his first turn at the podium. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)
Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles took his first turn at the podium. (Photos by Jeff Roffman)

On Thursday the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of music by Schubert, Mozart, Debussy and Beethoven, led for the first time this season by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, with flutist Christina Smith and harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson, both ASO principals, as featured soloists. 

They will perform the same program twice more this weekend at Symphony Hall, tonight at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

The orchestral program opened with Franz Schubert’s “Six German Dances,” arranged for orchestra by Anton Webern. The works were originally for piano, published posthumously in 1931 by the Viennese publisher Universal Editions. Universal also published Webern’s music and engaged him in the same year to orchestrate Schubert’s piano piece. The result is an attractively graceful rendition. 

The last time it was performed by the ASO was in 1979, with Hiroyuki Iwaki conducting. Even if atypical for a curtain raiser, it was good to see the piece returned to the ASO repertoire under Runnicles’ baton in a performance with lift and buoyancy.

After a rearrangement of seating to allow a spot for soloists, Christina Smith and Elisabeth Remy Johnson came front-and-center to perform W.A. Mozart’s “Concerto for Flute and Harp.”

Essentially a sinfonia concertante more than textbook concerto, the two solo parts are still quite technically challenging, especially in terms of necessary clarity and precision — the harp part perhaps more so. Smith and Johnson dispatched Mozart’s music delightfully, Runnicles and the orchestra’s good pace balance with them.

ASO principals Elisabeth Remy Johnson on harp and Christina Smith on flute.
ASO principals Elisabeth Remy Johnson on harp and Christina Smith on flute.

Smith and Johnson have performed together as a duo for 20 years, but have known each other since high school. In 2008, they released a CD of flute and harp duos, Encantamiento, on the ACA Digital label. The disc was available in the Galleria at intermission.

After intermission, Runnicles led the orchestra in another work which features prominent flute and harp parts, “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” by Claude Debussy. Smith and Johnson rejoined the orchestra in their usual places as principals for this work. 

The opening passage for solo flute has become one of the most recognizable in orchestral repertoire. Not one, but two harps conspicuously figure in the work’s mostly gossamer, colorful, atmospheric orchestration. Though it sounds improvised, it is a tightly composed work; its brief 10 minutes was like a exquisite dream that has too quickly come and gone.

The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op.93. At just under a half-hour duration, it is the shortest of Beethoven’s symphonies, a mostly optimistic foray by the composer despite the personal difficulties he was confronting at the time. 

Like some of Beethoven’s other works, this particular symphony departs from the usual classical formula where the first movement is most substantial, the composer giving the final Allegro vivace movement the greatest import instead. It exuberantly ends with an extended hammering of the tonic chord, assuring with blunt certainty that the F major tonality would not be wandering off from its appointed final resting place. Not anytime soon, at least.

Despite the more boisterous, cheerful Beethoven, the overall demeanor of the concert was understated elegance, achieved in different ways by the Schubert, Mozart and Debussy.

This elegance was completely foreshadowed by an additional performance unique to Thursday’s agenda: a 6:45 p.m. pre-concert chamber concert, the first of five this season, which substituted for the usual pre-concert lecture. The music in these occasional performances is intended to connect, musically or thematically, with the orchestral program to follow in the 8 p.m. main event. Space allowing, audience is invited to be seated onstage to listen on these occasions.

Violinists David Coucheron and Lisa Yancich, violist Lachlan McBane and cellist Larry LeMaster opened with Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” (1905) and Schubert’s “Quartettsatz” D.703 (1820), each a single-movement work of about 10 minutes duration. 

A different ensemble took the stage to perform Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E-flat (K407), almost as long as the Webern and Schubert works combined: hornist Brice Andrus, violinist Justin Bruns, violists Cathy Lynn and YiYin Li, and cellist Brad Ritchie. The repertoire was a deliciously pleasing spread of intimate appetizers in advance of the evening’s main course.

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