ASO review: Guest conductor crafts rewarding night of music

During any given season, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra spreads a handful of guest conductors throughout the year to give Atlantans a feel for various conducting styles. These visitors also allow music director Robert Spano to take the occasional break or pursue guest engagements of his own. Eight conductors have made the trek to Symphony Hall so far this season; many of them have led the ensemble in memorable, show-stopping symphonic works.

In March, Marc Piollet came to Atlanta to conduct, among other compositions, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4. On Thursday, Lothar Zagrosek, who has a long history with the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, continued the Brahms cycle with an affecting reading of Symphony No. 1. The work is the kind of a showpiece — loud, filled with a broad dynamic range leading to thrilling swells of music and achingly beautiful piano passages — that lets a conductor leave an impression.

Zagrosek, who last conducted the ASO six years ago in a concert featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, also led the orchestra in the bite-sized “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” overture by Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto.

Beginning the concert on a placid note, Zagrosek worked to elongate and wring emotion from each phrase during the one-movement Mendelssohn work. While the “Calm Sea” at the start of the piece sounded a little too cautious and deliberate at first, Zagrosek was merely setting up a huge emotional and dynamic contrast for the “Prosperous Voyage.” Through careful direction, he helped the ASO sound alternately like a placid sea, ominous waves, and a jaunty group of deckhands.

The 13-minute, highly programmatic piece could have merely been a warmup before the main events of the evening, but Zagrosek gave the tone poem a level of care and attention that transformed the simple work into something sublime.

Pianist Javier Perianes, giving his Atlanta debut, showcased fleet fingers, an easy touch and a laid-back approach during the Schumann concerto. Whether hammering away at chords or slowly unfurling a quiet melody, Perianes worked the keyboard without any flash or panache. His willingness to recede from the spotlight served him well; in some passages, the piano is almost subservient to the orchestra, moving into the background while playing complex, intricate filigree below a signing orchestral theme.

Zagrosek’s crowning achievement, however, was a Brahms performance full of energy and quick-change emotion. It’s a tricky piece, full of wide intervallic leaps in the strings (performed with stellar attention to intonation) and abrupt dynamic changes. If there was a sense of strictness in the Mendelssohn at the beginning of the night, that had all vanished by the Brahms. Zagrosek let the orchestra assert its greatest assets — the strings — paying delicate attention to a full-bodied woodwind section propelled by supple oboe and clarinet solos.

While the Brahms, which took up the entire second half of the program, proved that Zagrosek is a brilliant conductor, he gave each piece careful attention, creating a rich, rewarding night of music.

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