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Monday, November 7, 2011

Concert Review: Taking on the Titans

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
Mr. Congenial: Garrick Ohlsson returned to Carnegie Hall
as soloist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Robert Spano brought the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to Carnegie Hall on Saturday night with a challenging program featuring new music from composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, followed by two works by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. These late Russian Romantics, while very different musically, were classmates at the same conservatory.

The concert opened with the New York premiere of Nyx a large-scale orchestral work. Mr. Salonen wove a complex, yet clear fabric from gleaming melodic threads. The clarinet and horns tossed the main theme back and forth over a roil of sound. The music became menacing and monolithic, with bold brass writing and innovative percussion making a rich sonic experience. Predictably, it was met with polite applause. 

Although Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy premiered in New York in 1908, it remains an obscure example of late Russian romanticism. Scriabin used an unusual harmonic language in this late piece. By choosing to substitute the dissonant interval of a harmonic fourth for the usual, more tonal fifth, he created a dissonant sound-world, very much his own.

This challenging score was presented with playing of the highest caliber. Concertmaster David Coucheron unleashed the shimmering first theme, answered by a clarion call in the expanded brass section. The eight horns formed a phalanx in the orchestra, leading the charge up the score's dizzying heights. Robert Spano drove the work home, bringing in the tuba and organ to anchor an orgiastic swirl of sound. The meaning of the work may have died with Scriabin, but its impact was deeply felt.

The audience seemed happier about the second half of the program: Rachmaninoff's familiar, though fearsomely difficult Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring soloist Garrick Ohlsson. Its three movements are like that old Atari game "Pitfall!"--one wrong move and the soloist will never be heard from again.
Pitfall Harry (on rope, right) may well have understood the dangers of playing Rachmaninoff.
Image from the video game Pitfall! © 1982 Activision.
It's true that Rachmaninoff wrote the concerto for himself to play on tour and was possessed with freakishly big hands that (legend has it) could stretch a twelfth (that's an octave and a half) on the keyboard. But what makes this concerto so difficult is the interwoven nature of its writing. The conductor does more than just accompany a pretty melody--he and the orchestra get into a complicated dialogue with the soloist that sometimes verges on argument. It also calls for fearsome precision among all those trills, keyboard runs and hand-crossings, pointillist playing at full forte.

Mr. Ohlsson and Mr. Spano made a congenial team, solving the concerto's problems as they unfolded its secrets. The first movement's complicated cadenzas (where the pianist takes on the role of both orchestra and soloist, an idea first developed by the composer Alkan) held the audience breathless. The slow Intermezzo sang a sad Russian song. And the pell-mell finale, calling for the greatest degree of virtuosity from the pianist proved a thrilling experience.

After a tumultuous reception from the audience, Mr. Ohlsson returned to the keyboard. Turning to the house, he announced: "This is too famous for an introduction." Then he played a slow, loving Clair de Lune from Debussy's Suite Bergamesque. It was the perfect contrast to the Rachmaninoff, and an ideal way to end the evening.

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