A plaintive wail rises above the orchestra. Sustained, but wavering, the cry continues before morphing into a song, jig-like and quick. Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concertmaster David Coucheron’s violin gave voice to this shriek, and the somewhat schizophrenic melodic lines that follow, inhabiting the aura of Richard Strauss’ wife in “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”).
The epic Strauss tone poem is filled with narrative complexity, and led by guest conductor Edo de Waart, the ASO was in storytelling mode. Throughout the performance, elegant music wafted from the orchestra, which was augmented to meet the demands of the composition. The tone-painting impact was immediate. Opening the work, the superb ASO cello section played a guttural triplet motif, which tripped from the low end up to the stratosphere, singing the whole way with an edge of grittiness, supported by the horn section. In the second episode of the six-part saga, intricate woodwind filigree, played with pep and vigor, stood in as Strauss’ prattling critics. An offstage trumpet choir ushered in the fourth scene, a battle royale brought by the composer’s detractors, which ascended into swirls of triple-forte madness amid percussion cacophony.
In the composition, Strauss worked with substantial gobs of paint, layering on string squalls and horn swells to create a series of sweeping portraits of his life. De Waart had the ASO musicians dig into the programmatic effects, creating a moving, easy-to-follow biography.
During the orchestral introduction to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, guest pianist Ronald Brautigam silently moved his fingers over the keys as a mime in a concert hall. When he started to actually press the keys in bubbly Mozartian runs that floated atop the orchestra, Brautigam’s light, effortless touch allowed his hands to glide fluidly along the keyboard. This delicate, florid sound fit perfectly inside the ensemble’s presentation; Brautigam was the soloist, but he also found himself as part of the team, even when dashing off showy cadenzas and intricate melodic runs.
As the first selection on Thursday’s program, the Mozart concerto served as a foil. While precise and well-played by the orchestra and the joyful Brautigam, the Mozart performance suffered by comparison to the substantial Strauss work performed after intermission.
For concerts like Thursday’s performance, it must be especially difficult to be a guest conductor. Donald Runnicles, who has been leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as principle guest conductor for nearly 20 years, has said that flying in to conduct an orchestra is no easy assignment. Making sure the musicians are on the same page and share enough chemistry with each guest to pull off a great performance can be a tall order.
The added weight with the ASO this year is that every guest artist, both new and familiar, could be auditioning for a job to replace Robert Spano, the retiring ASO music director. In all, 10 conductors will come to Atlanta to lead the orchestra, half of them for the first time.
The first guest conductor of the season was, in fact, an old friend. The acclaimed De Waart last appeared with the ASO in the spring of 2018, leading violinist Augustin Hadelich in a thrilling performance. Runnicles will make his season debut on Nov. 2; after that, the music director guessing game can begin.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Saturday. $29-$98. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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