Under the direction of guest conductor Matthias Pintscher Thursday night, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra awoke in fits and starts, as if from a deep slumber, for a disquieting, disorienting introduction to a program rounded out by the familiar sounds of Beethoven and Brahms.
The 12-minute “Ex Nihilo,” written in 2011 by Pintscher and tenderly conducted at the top of the program, is an ominous piece of music. Written to portray, as explained in the program notes, “awaking, jet-lagged and disoriented, in a strange, dark hotel room,” the composition’s overall impression is one of dread and foreboding.
The piece begins from nothing in the bass and percussion as a murmur, an audible hush, and is ponderously slow in developing the collective awakening of the ensemble. Metallic cold, sharp sounds emerge from the depths of the orchestra, untethered to the rest of the music and floating in the ether. The impact is overwhelming and devastatingly beautiful.
Pintscher emphasized the quiet and sparseness in the piece Thursday, and he allowed the soundscape to slowly evolve and develop organically. The full chamber orchestra rarely plays as one unit, making the forte exclamations of ensemble sound — a bubbling of trills here, a jumbled cacophony there — alarming. During the piece, the musicians exercised intense discipline and concentration, with eyes trained on the conductor as he navigated them through an exposed musical environment that lacked melodic wayposts or other orienting passages.
“Ex Nihilo” is unsettling but not uncomfortable. It’s a piece that invites refection, a piece that lingers, hanging in the air above the orchestra like a dark cloud. After this dystopian-leaning sound world, a return to Romanticism in the form of Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major appeared as a gut punch of rich, textured sound.
The orchestra is nearing the end of the first of two season-long celebrations of Beethoven, and though the musicians have been performing the composer’s works for months upon months, they continue to bring a spark to the music. In the concerto, pastoral passages, rich with reedy woodwinds, nearly outshined the impressive guest soloist Nicola Benedetti.
Benedetti has a crisp, centered violin tone that shines in the high register, and she fearlessly navigates to the top of the instrument’s range, hitting stratospheric notes with authority and swaggering vibrato. Beethoven’s writing is full of demanding violin passages, and Benedetti flew through these with confidence.
Benedetti clearly enjoyed playing with the ASO, bobbing her head along with the music during lengthy introductory passages. During cadenzas full of double-stops, she was at once a joyous fiddler, percussively attacking a folk tune. Perhaps some of Pintscher’s demonstrative enthusiasm rubbed off on the musicians; during particularly vigorous passages in the concerto, the conductor hopped up and down on the podium, a physical rendering of musical attack.
For the second half of the program, Pintscher commanded a serene, peaceful but wholly engaging performance of Brahms Symphony No. 2. A study in pastoral feelings, the Brahms symphony nevertheless has hints of danger and confrontation, echoing the feelings, if not the content, of “Ex Nihilo.”
Pintscher last appeared with the ASO during the tail end of the 2014-15 season, leading the ensemble through Wagner’s 23-minute “Siegfried Idyll” for chamber orchestra. During that concert, he offered nothing of his own, but this time around, “Ex Nihilo” presented the audience a more complete picture of the conductor. Leading with “Ex Nihilo” may have seemed odd at first, but in the end, the contrast in styles, and the introduction to Pintscher as a composer, just felt right.
Matthias Pintscher and guest artist Nicola Benedetti
8 p.m. April 19. Additional performance at 8 p.m. April 21. $32-$108. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.
Matinee performance at 3 p.m. April 22. $66-$76. University of Georgia Performing Arts Center, 230 River Road, Athens.
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