Donald Runnicles returns to the ASO with breathtaking Bruckner

The orchestra will perform the program again on Saturday evening.

For the first time this season, Donald Runnicles is back in town with two hefty Atlanta Symphony Orchestra shows. Thursday evening, it was a Mozart piano concerto and Bruckner’s massive Symphony No. 8 — an unmissable program that repeats Saturday, Jan. 21, at 8 p.m. Next week, Brahms’ “A German Requiem” is the centerpiece.

Sir Donald, as the Scottish conductor is known throughout the British Empire, has been the ASO’s principal guest conductor for more than 20 years. His relationship with the orchestra seems to have gotten deeper, more expressive, perhaps less methodical and more intuitive, over time. With a new music director still building her onstage rapport and with relatively few repeat-engagement maestros visiting the podium, Runnicles has been the steady presence, operating at a sky-high level of artistry.

They opened Thursday’s concert with Mozart’s ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. Pianist Jonathan Biss — warm, gentle and full of character — played the solo role as a bit of an introvert, lost in his own world. At the same time, in a tight partnership with the conductor, he was uncommonly alert to the cues and phrasing from the orchestral musicians.

Credit: Rand Lines

Credit: Rand Lines

In little exchanges with the bassoon or the flute, Biss and the musicians sculpted matching phrases, to subtle and satisfying effect. The collaboration and shared listening was going so splendidly that for moments at a time Runnicles didn’t conduct at all, instead keeping his arms down and swaying a bit to the flow, raising an eyebrow at the violins at key transitions to keep everyone on track.

Throughout, he led this D-minor concerto as if it were Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” full of courtly good manners and masculine power, where the vivacity on the surface barely masks the forbiddingly dark undercurrents. For the middle Romanza movement, Biss played the famous tunes like an opera aria, at turns confessional and beautifully seductive. It was easy to imagine the scene as a serenade, with Biss standing below a balcony, his voice carrying upward.

The Mozart was offered with a reduced ensemble. After intermission, the stage was absolutely full for Bruckner’s Eighth, including three harps stationed stage right and eight French horns, with half of the players doubling on so-called Wagner tubas — brass instruments that bridge the sonic space between horns and trombones, leading to a richer, more saturated sound. (And we must note that if a program works, it works: Runnicles led this exact pairing, the same Mozart concerto and Bruckner symphony, in 2011 with then-music director Robert Spano as piano soloist.)

Bruckner’s maximalism — the huge orchestra; the drawn-out breaths, like a pipe organ; those three harps, given moments of great prominence like visitations from another world; the extra-long length, almost 80 minutes — messes with a listener’s perception of time. (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, used by Bruckner as a structural model, lasts only an hour.)

Paradoxically, in Bruckner, sometimes a conductor takes a slightly slower tempo which actually makes the music feel lighter and move more quickly — it’s a mind trick, for sure, where space and time dissolve into each other. Part of this is the composer’s ability to keep the listener in perpetual suspension, with one commentator calling the Eighth Symphony “a great study in long-range harmonic evasion.”

Across the opening movement, the ASO seemed to gain in cohesion and finesse. The hulking brass choirs, the shimmering and taut string tone, the lush, verdant woodwinds — Runnicles’ comprehensive reading allowed the players freedom to play out within these giant, sometimes crudely carved, blocks of sound. The Scherzo second movement repeats a five-note figure over and over, an ostinato that scorches into your memory. Here it was beautifully controlled, with blaring brass waves topped by wispy whitecaps from the woodwinds. It all felt so alive.

We’ve already been through a lot by the time the painful Adagio arrived — caged, battered and a little raw. So when the cellos take us down, down, down into some unexplored emotional abyss, everyone is helpless to resist. Rather than fatigued, they came out of the Adagio a better, tighter and more dedicated ensemble than when they started the evening, making the finale’s triumphant resolution all the more organic and authentic.

Under Runnicles, we hear what a fine orchestra the ASO can be -- even in the sort of repertoire they don’t visit often enough. Anticipation is already brimming for next week’s intense and sublime “A German Requiem.”

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL


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