Chorus is the star in ASO’s road trip preview

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s annual road trip to Carnegie Hall takes place next weekend. On Thursday, the local audience heard the same concert at Symphony Hall, and it was a nice chance to take stock.

This year, the orchestra is carrying along its prized chorus, and the program consisted of music from three neo-romantic composers from the 20thcentury.

Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is one of the three ballet scores he wrote, all during his populist period and all inspired by American folk music. There is a wistful, innocent quality to the score. Copland originally scored it for just 13 players but later created the larger arrangement used here. One risk of this version is that it can become overblown, but Robert Spano conducted with admirable restraint, letting the music speak for itself in a performance that was both transparent and, at times, quite rollicking, with the eight sections nicely but delicately differentiated.

Next came Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” a choral setting in Hebrew of several passages of Scripture. It might seem cheeky to show up in New York with a work by Bernstein, still fondly recalled for his tenure at the New York Philharmonic. But Spano also has New York credentials from his years at the Brooklyn Philharmonic. More significantly, he has the kind of chorus that can bite off this challenging work.

In the work’s celebratory first movement, the combination of rapid-fire pace and Bernstein’s orchestration with Symphony Hall’s cruel acoustics sometimes rendered the ASO chorus’ diction into Psalm 100’s “joyful noise.” This problem should resolve itself nicely when the company transfers to Carnegie, with its fabled sound.

Things worked much better for the remaining movements, both gentle and reflective for the most part, and here performed with considerable precision. There is a soloist, designated as either a boy soprano or a countertenor, and the ASO has performed it both ways. In this case we heard a fine young countertenor, John Holiday, whose voice soared through the hall. He has a clear, natural sound, without the reedy quality often associated with countertenors.

Spano’s intense approach to the piece resembles Bernstein’s own, and this is likely as authentic a reading as you’ll hear today.

The big work on the menu was also the most obscure, William Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast.” Written in 1931, it was quite popular for a few decades but now gets performed only occasionally. The ASO and chorus made a strong case for it.

“Feast” is a fascinating choral work that deals with the Israelites during their captivity in Babylon. It’s quite vivid, full of pagan celebrations, terrors, lamentations and, ultimately, the triumph of the Israelites. As with everything on this program, the music is conservative but highly expressive. It really does showcase the qualities that distinguish the ASO chorus: its finely honed unity, the clear sound of the sopranos and its ability to sing the most difficult material with dispatch.

Brett Polegato, the baritone soloist, has such fine diction that the projected titles were superfluous. He sang with near-perfect intonation and a fine dramatic sense. And Spano was in his element, piloting the massive ensemble like a finely tuned Ferrari: powerful, elegant, precise and sometimes a little boisterous.

Concert review

Oct. 18. One additional performance at 8 p.m. Oct 20. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-5000.