ASO skillfully navigates disparate pieces

Never be afraid of a little drama.

That’s seemingly the spirit with which the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra approached a program of music by Verdi, Respighi and Brahms on Thursday night, with each piece offering the orchestra an opportunity to show off its ability to evoke different sorts of dramatic texture and narrative from diverse symphonic works.

The program opened with Verdi’s overture to “La Forza del Destino” under the baton of young Brazilian guest conductor Alexandra Arrieche.

Becoming far more than just a small plate preceding the evening’s main courses, the piece developed into an epic in miniature (on a theme no less dramatic than “destiny” itself), with Arrieche evoking a powerfully dense sound from brass and percussion balanced by a lovely lucidity and deft precision from strings. The short, appealing piece packed a tough, spunky wallop earning a standing ovation from a grateful audience.

ASO Music Director Robert Spano took the podium for Respighi’s “Concerto in modo misolidio,” with guest Finnish musician Olli Mustonen on piano.

The curious late piece with its abstract, modern-sounding exploration into the distant Italian past (Respighi based his 20th-century composition on medieval “Myxolydian” Gregorian chant) doesn’t even seem to be in the same guidebook as the composer’s more famous, romantic and colorful “Fountains of Rome,” “Pines of Rome,” and “Roman Festival.”

Mustonen skillfully steered his way through rumbling virtuoso passages, but his fearless artistry was most apparent as the sound narrowed to focus on the piano alone; Mustonen knows how to milk drama even from a single note, letting its gorgeous tones and delicate textures blossom and then die before proceeding onward.

It was Mustonen’s dramatic negotiation of tenderness and quiet with energy and ferocity that took centerstage as Spano wisely kept the orchestra as a skillfully modulated supporting player.

The piece delved into some surprising territory in its 38 minutes, with shades of Respighi’s familiar hummable, imagistic romanticism slowly dissolving into a more contemporary sound, with Mustonen clearly delighting in finding some jazzy little pockets here and there. Respighi was still obviously unabashed about including some old-school prettiness in the work as in the opening section of the second movement, with the cellos playing a delicious, plaintive melody.

The words “drama” and Brahms’s Second Symphony, also known as the “Pastoral,” are probably seldom spoken in the same sentence, but Spano evoked not just a sense of the dulcet sweetness and serenity the work is best-known for, but also some surprising drama from the work, understanding the interplay between different textures within the orchestra and never shying away from giving its more thunderous passages full rein or diving deep into the decrescendos and quieter passages.

Brahms himself referred to the work as his “charming new monster” on its completion, and it’s this seemingly slightly cheeky balance between the sweet and the monumental that the orchestra played up. Some listeners shy away from Brahms because of his reputation for length and complexity, but there was a lovely sense of transparency and simplicity brought out by Spano’s constant demand for clarity: the sound could gather force in a crescendo of strings and then recede away or shift to the woodwinds, always with a sense of textural richness and precision.

From the crowd-pleasing prelude of Verdi to the beguiling birth of modernity in Respighi and onward to the dense and varied textures of Brahms, the orchestra created a smart but accessible program, an evening of drama that seemed to offer a bit of something for everyone.

The orchestra plays the same program Friday Feb. 22 and and Saturday Feb. 23, at 8 p.m.