ASO pairs 20th century magic with Beethoven concerto

For the past two decades, music director Robert Spano has honed the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra into an exacting, intensely musical ensemble capable of performing the thorniest, most difficult pieces of music with precision and an overwhelming emotional clarity.

On Thursday, the orchestra turned its focus to the individuals in the ensemble, highlighting section soloists in a pair of 20th century works — Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutoslawski and Oliver Knussen’s “Two Organa” — and showcasing concertmaster David Coucheron in a mesmerizing performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The two compositions beginning the evening even had personal resonance for the ASO and Spano. Knussen, who died in 2018, was a friend of the orchestra who appeared in Atlanta many times to conduct his own work. And in the fall of 1990, as a new addition to the Boston Symphony, Spano served as Lutoslawski’s cover conductor — an understudy, in a way — when the composer came to town to conduct.

Thursday night ended with the most visible musician in the ensemble. As concertmaster, Coucheron is the musician leader of the orchestra, and during his decade in Atlanta, he has also emerged as one of the ASO’s most engaging soloists; Thursday’s performance was his seventh solo turn with the ASO.

During the violin concerto, luxuriant strings and an impeccable ensemble blend created an ideal platform for Coucheron, who bounded and leaped through disjunct, heady passages of notes with sparkling beauty. Listening to Coucheron perform is like hearing again from a dear friend after a short absence. And when accompanied by the orchestra, and especially during extended solo passages, Coucheron proved he has the capacity to amaze even after all these years.

Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra highlighted the solo voices inside the ensemble, but also awarded ensemble players with twisting, intricate music. These intertwining melodies spanned the entire range of dynamics from deliciously quiet to deliriously loud. In the ASO’s hands, slippery figures, brief snippets of sound, rose up only to give way to interactive dialogues among soloists in the orchestra.

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.


CONCERT REVIEW

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.