As a supporting player in Thursday’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra played a string of Romantic, earworm melodies, giving guest pianist Jonathan Biss room for expansive, inspiring solo playing. The orchestra contrasted that canonical work with Jennifer Higdon’s captivating Concerto for Orchestra — written two centuries later than the Beethoven composition — which shifts the virtuosic playing to the entire ensemble.
The juxtaposed concerti created an enthralling night of music. The ASO’s performance of the thorny Higdon composition showcased a group of musicians at their very best. No singable bits of melody emerged during the five beautifully cacophonous movements, but music director Robert Spano’s handling of the dissonant, turbulent piece had a more lasting impact than a catchy melody.
Higdon’s composition is led by strong string writing that sounds a bit like improvisation, characterized by barrages of notes, played in short, ascending bursts. These disjunct phrases are played by entire sections; other times, a single musician will pass a snippet of music to another section in a dialogue, with each subsequent musician expanding, condensing, commenting on the figure.
The ASO string section is the hero of Higdon’s concerto, sawing away at complicated rhythms with unabashed intensity. Nothing is gentle or delicate about the thickly dissonant composition, and Spano seemed to relish leading the orchestra through a work that forges ahead unrelentingly and unapologetically.
Higdon has been a fixture of ASO performances and recordings since being named to the Atlanta School of Composers, a cohort of contemporary writers that provides the ASO with inspiring new works. Higdon actually composed this concerto for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2002 — she has said that ensemble’s string sound was an inspiration for the composition — but the ASO is well acquainted with Higdon’s works and sensibilities; the musicians sounded more comfortable with her concerto than they would have with a completely new bit of music. (Though Spano and the orchestra made the debut recording of the concerto in 2005.)
In the “Emperor” concerto, Biss showed off his light touch on the keyboard, and this gave the many chromatic explorations up and down the keyboard a liquid, babbling-brook feel; even during more declarative, forte statements, his playing had an easy, approachable sound. This wasn’t Beethoven on a pedestal via a showy, unapproachable classical icon. Biss’ Beethoven was calm and cool, with a boiling intensity under the surface. The orchestra participated as the pianist’s equal, playing more than mere accompanist.
In the end, Biss’ playing exuded an easy confidence and authority, but not cockiness. The pianist’s mannerisms may skew toward affectation at times, but his playing is unadorned and lovely. In Biss’ hands, the concerto’s plethora of shimmering piano lines seemed to push the tempo at times, with the pianist’s fingers running up and down the piano at breakneck speed.
The 35-year-old Biss came to Atlanta as part of the ASO’s Mostly Beethoven celebration, which, starting with this concert, brings two Beethoven symphonies and three piano concerti to Atlanta Symphony Hall. Next week, principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles will conduct the ASO in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.
While Biss’ trip to Atlanta may have received the higher billing in marketing materials, Higdon’s brilliant work made the night complete.
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