With concertmaster David Coucheron’s emotional performance of the Violin Concerto in D major by Johannes Brahms the highlight of the evening, Thursday night at the symphony was actually all about that bass.
ASO bassist Michael Kurth was in the audience for the world premiere of his “A Thousand Words,” a programmatic symphonic work commissioned by the orchestra. Thursday also marked the 71st anniversary of the orchestra’s first concert, giving bassist Jane Little, who has seen the entire lifespan of the Atlanta ensemble, the world record title as the longest tenured player with a single orchestra.
The ASO dedicated its concerts this weekend to the memory of Carl David Hall, the symphony’s principal piccolo and flute player, who died Tuesday. Hall had been a member of the orchestra since 1984. As a tribute, the ensemble opened the evening with an emotional reading of the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. After a confident performance of the Brahms, Coucheron dedicated an encore to Hall’s memory.
The Brahms violin concerto is a technically demanding piece recently performed at Symphony Hall by the star violinist Joshua Bell; for this performance, the ASO looked inward, and concertmaster Coucheron proved to be a brilliant soloist. Even in the trickiest passages, which occur at the top of the violin’s range and at breakneck speed, Coucheron filled his playing with an aggressive self-assurance and a bright tone. The most affecting passages, though, came during the slower second movement, where Coucheron had time to wring added passion from every note.
The concerto is also a fun piece, and while Coucheron is not an overly demonstrative player, joy came through in the music. In the especially bouncy third movement, the symphony took a few measures to lock into the tempo, but these minor quibbles didn’t detract from an overall glowing performance.
“A Thousand Words” is Kurth’s third world premiere with the orchestra. The bassist, who has been with the ASO since 1994, heard colleagues perform his compositions in 2011 and 2013.
In interviews leading up to the premiere, Kurth talked about this work in nearly cinematic terms, speaking about translating the feeling of being in certain places into music.
That translation comes across in a broad work where all four movements could nearly be broken into single compositions. Snatches of minimalism drift in and out of the piece, and the second movement features what sounds like a passionate tango in an industrial percussion landscape. There is a quasi-jazz, syncopated feel to most of the second movement, and throughout the entire piece, Kurth seems in search of as many grooves as he can establish. Backed by five percussionists (who, by the fourth movement, have gotten out the bongos and cowbell) and a full complement of the orchestra, there’s a lot of power on stage. Sometimes this swallows up intricate writing in the strings.
All of this works, though, because of the serenity of the first movement, which has a Brian Eno-esque ambient quality. Slow moving in the first half, the movement brings in members of the orchestra gradually and softly builds into a triumphant noise before ending with mighty bass drum whacks and an astounding cacophony. This short movement is a progression toward majesty — a brilliant, slow-burn piece of music, with minimalistic figures popping up out of the ambience.
After an evening of virtuosic music, the orchestra closed with Richard Strauss’ crisp, bright tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel.” In a concert packed with music, Strauss’ music could have been superfluous, but solid playing and an emotive orchestra helped create the perfect nightcap.