ASO, Golijov mesh well again

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Thursday at Symphony Hall

8 p.m. today and Saturday, Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org

The Atlanta Symphony has become a more musical and much more famous orchestra off the music of Osvaldo Golijov, a 47-year-old Argentine composer who's almost unique on today's classical music scene.

Atlanta knows and loves Golijov, in no small part thanks to conductor Robert Spano, who's led the ASO in all his major scores —- topped by "La Pasion Segun San Marcos," a crucifixion tale set to Latin American dances, and the opera "Ainadamar," on the murder of poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The ASO took these shows on tour; its recording of the opera, a highlight of the orchestra's history, won countless new fans and a Grammy for Best Opera.

Trouble is, Golijov doesn't write much. There's not enough of his music to keep an eager city satisfied. On stage Thursday in Symphony Hall —- the final weekend of concerts in its main 2007-08 season —- came Golijov's "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," a meditation on the Kabbalistic teachings of the medieval Provencal rabbi who's approaching pop icon status. (Madonna apparently studies the Kabbalah and wrote her own tribute song, "Isaac.")

"Dreams and Prayers," from 1994, was originally for string quartet and a solo clarinetist, and covering the world of klezmer emotions with sinuous melodies, from harrowing to brash to joyous and sorrowful and back.

Clarinetist Todd Palmer, a serious Golijov devotee, recently had the score thickened up for string orchestra and took the solo part with the ASO.

A soulful musician, Palmer's tone is at once liquid and velvety. In brief duets with concertmaster Cecylia Arzewski —- who's departing the orchestra after this weekend —- the clarinetist and violinist captured some ghost of a Jewish life that's forever lost. The music and the performance won't soon be forgotten.

The Golijov was paired with Stravinsky's 1910 ballet "The Firebird."

Both are early scores that made their composer's name but preceded by a few years their epoch-smashing, paradigm-shifting triumphs: Golijov's "La Pasion" and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

The silken, incandescent "Firebird" plays to the ASO's fabulous strength under Spano: its lucid rhythmic fluidity, where the sense of beat and time is so taut that, paradoxically, it can seem supple.

It also pointed up some recurring deficiencies, including weak solo viola playing by principal Reid Harris and flubbed trombone lines.

And Stravinsky plays to Spano's interpretive ideals, too: muscular, a little hedonistic but never sentimental, emotionally reticent.

Smart programmer, Spano tied up the evening neatly by lifting to prominence the bits of klezmer buried in "The Firebird," finding the universal in old Yiddish culture.

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