Dancing through Niccolo Paganini’s Caprice No. 5 at a Road Runner tempo, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra guest violinist Augustin Hadelich took a moment to decelerate, emphasizing a key phrase and building up a little tension before once again hurtling along, through a hair-raising scale, to the stratospheric reaches of his instrument.
Standing solo in front of the ASO Thursday night, it was hard to believe this electrifying encore performance immediately followed a beautiful, transformative solo turn in the Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra by Jean Sibelius.
Half an hour before his encore, Hadelich had sublimely negotiated the opening movement of the Sibelius with the assistance of guest conductor Marc Piollet. The conductor, whose extensive resume includes appearances with some of the top opera houses in the world, was to make his debut with the ASO in 2014, but had a last-minute change in schedule. Thursday marked Hadelich’s third run with the ASO — he has performed Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major and, in his debut with the ensemble, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
The Sibelius concerto is a technical marvel, but Hadelich took great care to not make it sound like an onerous mechanical exercise. While some violinists saw away at the double-stops and other technical tricks in the first movement, Hadelich showed off the expressive capabilities of the instrument, playing with a graceful liquescence. His sensuous, honeyed tone remained consistent throughout the full range of the violin — achingly beautiful high notes were as deep and rich as his rapid-fire explorations in the instrument’s middle range.
During the first movement of the concerto, the orchestra operates almost exclusively in a supporting role, playing out only when the solo violin part rests. At times, this makes it seem like two different pieces are being performed, and could have made for a strange call-and-response piece of music, but Hadelich paid careful attention to the orchestra at all times, stepping out of his headlining role to make sure to perform along with the ensemble.
The concerto followed an engaging reading of Orchestra Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Boris Blacher’s 1947 work that expands and interprets material from Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. The piece, anchored by concertmaster David Coucheron, highlights the ASO violin section, which continues to be one of the orchestra’s biggest assets.
As a conductor, Piollet brings a dramatic dynamism, acting out musical ideas to the players — scrunching up his massive frame during quiet passages, slithering to portray a slinky clarinet solo, rapidly waving his long arms to indicate an increase in tempo — and the musicians responded. Thursday night, he was a director, showing the musicians how he wanted them to play.
Piollet operates in extreme dynamics. During the beautifully performed Symphony No. 4 by Johannes Brahms, which closed the concert, the orchestra played as a battering ram in the forte passages, but was able to drop to a quiet roar at a moment’s notice without sacrificing clarity or intensity. Piollet successfully asserted the orchestra’s voice during a night when all the focus was on Hadelich.
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