Even the six-person bass section, tucked away at the side of the stage, enjoyed a moment in the limelight Thursday. In the final movement of the three-part concerto, the lowest strings began with a soft, yearning rumble that developed into a stage-whispered introductory call. This hushed solo performance lasted only a minute, but the serene quiet awakened the rest of the orchestra, and the ensemble soon progressed to jarring dissonances and triple-forte trumpet blasts. The bass opening echoed a feeling in the second movement, where the string section played so softly it was like they were using mutes, creating a spectral, dangerous sound.
Despite its association with Knussen, the ASO had never presented “Two Organa” on a subscription concert. The piece is a whimsical, rhythmically striking work marked by intense syncopations and parts of the orchestra moving against each other like a series of gears. Composed of two short organa, the piece, written in 1995, burst out of its small package. Knussen based the structure on a 12th century compositional technique, using old musical ideas to create a vibrant, modern atmosphere. While the first organum opened with a simplistic, toy-box melody that was quickly deconstructed by the chamber orchestra, the second began with thick polyphony, anchored by a slow-moving melody in the low end of the orchestra. Instruments emerged from the ensemble — first a clarinet playing a jaunty figure, then an answer from a violin, singing out in elongated, assured notes — and these distinct voices moved seamlessly in and out of the ensemble.
Thursday, after an opening of 20th century music, returning from the intermission for Beethoven’s violin concerto felt a bit disorienting. The playing, and the music, sounded too decorous after a subversive first half. It’s a tribute to the ASO and Spano’s programming that by the end of the night, Beethoven sounded as forward-thinking as his compositional descendants.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. today; 3 p.m. Sunday. $23-$109. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.