ASO new music premiere outdone by Tchaikovsky

The two gleaming drum kits, which sat at opposite sides of the stage amid an array of percussion, held the promise of bombastic rock drumming during Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. But the Atlanta premiere of Avner Dorman’s “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins,” a delightfully engaging composition, was overshadowed by a symphonic work that hasn’t been new since 1888.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a brooding piece propelled by the stellar ASO woodwind players and propped up by a strong string section led by concertmaster David Coucheron, outshined Dorman’s thrilling concerto for two percussionists, written in 2006.

Dorman grew up in Israel in the late 1970s, and his work has a distinctive Middle Eastern feel with bits of 1980s arena rock drumming. The three-movement concerto, performed by percussionists Charles Settle and Thomas Sherwood, asks the musicians to perform on a range of instruments — marimba, darbukas (a high-pitched, goblet-shaped drum), tom-toms, drum set, vibraphone, tam-tam. Painstakingly composed, many passages should nevertheless have the flair of improvisation.

The percussion duo performed the piece mostly from memory, hunkering down over their instruments as they shifted around the stage. The notes were clear and precise and technically accurate, but seemed rote, lacking inspiration. Both percussionists plowed through the difficult piece with aplomb, for an impressive, if slightly uninspiring, result. The duo played not as featured artists, imbuing passion into a showpiece, but as professional section players, making sure everything sounded as it should.

In Dorman’s work, the orchestra played with a more staccato, accented attack to match the percussion. Throughout the piece, the percussionists pass rhythmic ideas and melodies to the orchestra, which acts as a mimic, a conversation partner and a dutiful accompanist. At times, this relationship felt disconnected, with the featured soloists and the rest of the orchestra at slight musical odds with one another. Here, ASO music director Robert Spano may have taken too much care to not overshadow the percussionists.

The new work also featured moments of transcendence. The percussionists deftly navigated the dense, interlocking marimba music of the first movement, handling the thicket of polyphony magnificently. In the second movement, they locked in with the orchestra on an affecting section of slowly unfurling minimalism.

The ASO billed Dorman’s work as a feature for Atlanta’s musicians, but the night turned into a homecoming. Formerly ASO’s principal percussionist, Sherwood, a 16-year ASO veteran, recently took a leave of absence from the ASO and accepted a job with the Cleveland Orchestra. In fact, he’ll help the Cleveland Orchestra perform a world premiere of Dorman’s in Miami in March. Settle is the ASO’s acting principal player in Sherwood’s absence.

After intermission, Tchaikovsky’s symphony presented quite the contrast, as under Spano’s expressive direction, it sounded fresh and alive. When playing a work many of the assembled musicians have likely performed countless times, there’s the danger of a stale, lifeless performance; Spano was able to frame the piece as exciting and even a little unsettling. During the first movement, the woodwinds achieved a beautifully sonorous, deep tone, and Brice Andrus’ steady, expressive horn playing fueled the second movement.

After the raucous finish of the Dorman, which featured the percussionists pounding away on the drum kits, the solemn start of the Tchaikovsky, with its quasi-martial quality, initially felt like a programming misstep. The pieces have a completely different rhythmic feel — the Tchaikovsky features long, flowing phrases of a pastoral quality; Dorman’s piece was the polar opposite, with rhythmically intense, short phrases played as orchestra accompaniment to the percussionists.

Spano has a history of celebrating new composers, as he will with Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra next week, and bringing Dorman’s work, which received its U.S premiere only six years ago, to Atlanta is an important part of his role as a champion of symphonic music.

Still, including the Tchaikovsky was a wise decision.

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