ASO premieres feature dazzling technique

Thursday was a big night for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, featuring the world premiere of a clarinet concerto by Michael Gandolfi as well as the company debut of a fast-rising Finnish pianist, Juho Pohjonen.

Gandolfi, from Boston, belongs to a select group of composers chosen by Robert Spano, ASO’s Music Director. Members of this “Atlanta School” are regularly commissioned by the orchestra. In the program and in interviews, he explained that the new work, “The Nature of Light,” grew from his work on a recent choral work, “QED: Engaging Richard Feynman,” also an ASO commission. Gandolfi said he realized that the material in “QED” could go in a different direction, and began thinking especially of the clarinet. The availability of Laura Ardan, ASO’s principal clarinetist and one of its superstars, was surely a big factor in this choice.

Gandolfi’s writing is neo-Romantic, thoroughly American, jazz-inflected, and tonal. He lacks the originality of, for example, Osvaldo Golijov, a fellow Atlanta School composer. No new ear muscles are engaged. Still, “The Nature of Light” succeeds, and may be both the composer’s finest work and the one most likely to enjoy popular success, because of its fine haunting melodic beauty.

Gandolfi’s work often involves scientific metaphors, and this one deals with light. The first movement (of two) expresses the “wave shape” of light and is a chaconne. Here the themes are explored using elaborate variations in tempi. The work uses a string orchestra, and takes on a sensuous texture reminiscent of Samuel Barber. The second movement focuses on “light particles,” and much of it is a virtuosic high speed chase, with the players getting quite a workout.

The demanding work was written with Ardan in mind, and her performance clearly enhanced its appeal. Her performance showed both technical wizardry and a fine feel for the feelings it expresses. ASO fans are used to seeing her half-hidden in the orchestra, dressed conservatively in black. In this case she was up front, in a shimmering gown. She has a wondrous way of expressing, with her face and body, the joy she finds in the piece. Spano and the strings were attentive and supportive.

Pohjonen, in his 30’s, is slightly built, painfully shy and deadly serious, without the sort of personal charisma other artists employ to seduce the audience. But his playing is simply extraordinary.

He performed Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 5 in G Major, which apparently never been played here. The fourth concerto was famously written for the left hand only, and the composer decided, for what became his last concerto, to let the soloist use both hands again. It is a tough, complex piece. Prokofiev’s works have a bright, chilly edge, and that is the feeling here. Pohjonen captures it well. It’s a work that calls not for interpretive genius, but for the ability to play with great precision and, for lack of a better word, grace. It’s also extraordinarily demanding, and Pohjonen clearly has no deficits in this area. Both hands work nicely: wildly percussive when that is required, and gently coaxing in the gentle Larghetto movement. This was a night when a good view of the soloist’s hands was worth extra money. It was a performance worth recording of a work worth hearing.

The longest piece on the night’s program, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sheherazade,” was almost an afterthought, given the importance of what had happened before it. But Spano, a man of great enthusiasms, tackled it with ferocity. Concertmaster David Coucheron channeled his inner “orientalist” in the violin solos, and the woodwinds conjured images of “A Thousand Nights.”

Concert Review

This concert repeats Jan. 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree Street, Atlanta. 404-733-5000.