Harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson and Christina Smith, on flute, were moving as one. Smith’s resonant, crystalline flute danced nimbly atop glistening harp arpeggios during Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. The two musicians, performing center stage, were attentively supported by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. During a capella cadenzas in each of the three movements, the featured musicians played with a joyful, improvisatory flair.
Both veterans of the ASO — Smith joined in 1991, and Remy Johnson came on in 1995 — the duo rolled through Mozart’s soaring, triumphant writing with deliberate musicality Thursday at Atlanta Symphony Hall. Remy Johnson and Smith, deftly conducted by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, shone brightly on a night in which their performance could have been overshadowed by a rapturous version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.
Thursday marked Runnicles’ first concert of the year with the ASO; his appearances are always highlights of the season and almost seem too rare. Showing his range as a conductor, the ASO also played a haunting, ethereal version of “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy, opening the concert with Anton Webern’s orchestral arrangement of “Six German Dances” by Franz Schubert. Here, Schubert’s pithy piano pieces are given an expansive treatment by an earnest, whittled-down ensemble, but even with the ASO’s rich tone and able attention, the Shubert felt like a bite-size warm-up to the concert.
The short work couldn’t match the emotional heft of the rest of the program, an evening of major works in little packages — even the Beethoven symphony clocks in at around half an hour. Regardless, Runnicles wrung expressiveness and emotion out of every note, leading the musicians with both animated gestures and subtle, minute flicks of his wrist.
Runnicles seemed to be at the top of his game during the Beethoven symphony, known as “the little symphony in F,” which was billed as part of the ASO’s two-month Mostly Beethoven festival. The work, one of the composer’s shortest, most humorous symphonies, begins with a burst of strings; this forceful tone is a sound that might usually end a sprawling composition. From there, the musicians carefully, delicately dispatched Beethoven’s every musical whim, emphasizing each dramatic change in dynamics. But even on declarative downbeats, the ensemble kept a light, unaggressive tone. The orchestra played as a streamlined machine, moving at a clip through the Beethoven, completely locked in to the music.
From the start of this season, the ASO has been setting a precedent of celebrating its own musicians. Taken together with the performance of Abner Dorman’s “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins,” which featured percussionists Charles Settle and Thomas Sherwood, the orchestra has showcased ASO musicians as soloists in two of its first concerts. While this decision comes at the expense of touring musicians who bring expert levels of artistry to Atlanta, the ensemble players are proving their mettle as soloists. It’s a joy to hear how well ensemble players adapt and thrive in the spotlight. With Remy Johnson and Smith, the ASO picked two superlative veterans to highlight and gave them a thrilling piece to perform.
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