Coucheron Plays Mendelssohn: ASO concertmaster gives lucid performance of towering concerto

Concert review

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Additional performances 8 p.m. March 9 and 3 p.m. March 10. $23-$67. Symphony Hall, , 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-5000.

The distinguished Italian conductor Roberto Abbado, a long-standing regular guest here, returned to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s podium Thursday for a varied and alluring program. The focus, though, was on the orchestra’s dynamic young concertmaster, David Coucheron, performing as a soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Coucheron, who is from Norway, became the ASO’s concertmaster in 2010 after a prolonged search. Subscribers will recall that week after week a mystery person would be seated in the first chair, with no acknowledgement or listing in the program. These were all finalists, auditioning “live.” None seemed to be duds, but the transitory nature of the process meant that none had a chance to establish a bond with either the orchestra or the audience. So Coucheron’s selection was greeted with genuine relief. As his musicianship became apparent, and as the violins all seemed to respond over time, he became a popular local figure.

Being concertmaster of a major orchestra is a demanding day job, and not all are equally adept at performing the most demanding repertoire as soloists. But it’s nice if they can, and this is the third time Coucheron has played a major violin concerto with the orchestra. And the Mendelssohn, despite its ubiquity, is a pretty good test.

Coucheron arrived wearing a shirt that … let’s just say it’s unlikely the businessmen in the audience rushed out to track down his tailor. For the record, he designed it himself and had it made while performing in Hong Kong. No matter, if you play this well, you can wear shorts and flip-flops. His strengths are his liquid, fluid tone and flawless intonation. He took the virtuosic passages with breathless speed but never sacrificed accuracy.

He has a light touch, not big and overly dramatic. Not the huge sound you’d hear from, for example, Midori, who performed the same work here three years ago. This more refined approach works well with the Mendelssohn. It gets done a lot, and performances are often so similar that the challenge is to find something new to say. I think that happened here, aided significantly by Abbado, whose refined and elegant style is perfectly matched to Coucheron’s. Uncharacteristically of Abbado, there were a few slight coordination issues in the hectic passages, but it was an altogether satisfying performance.

After a prolonged ovation, Coucheron addressed the audience. Twenty-three years ago, when he was 5, his father told him of a dream he’d had, of performing the Mendelssohn with a great orchestra. His father told him it would not happen for himself, “but it might happen with you.” His parents were in the audience to experience the dream come true.

Encores are sadly rare here, perhaps the victims of the rush for the door. But Coucheron managed one: Paganini’s Caprice No. 7, an exercise in virtuosic leaping and switching that showed off his dead-on accuracy.

The concert opened with Franz Schubert’s exquisite Overture to “Die Zauberharfe” (Rosamunde). The play was a flop, but the overture fortunately took on a life of its own. Abbado has been criticized for a subtle, dignified approach that runs the risk of becoming dry, without enough dramatic tension. This work, however, showcased the advantages of his style. There was crispness to the sound that transported the audience back to a different time and continent.

After the break we got a wonderful oddity heretofore neglected by the ASO, the Berio/Schubert “Rendering.” Luciano Berio, a hugely talented 20th century modernist, discovered that Schubert, in the weeks before his death in 1828, had written sketches for a symphony that would have been his 10th. Berio orchestrated these elements nicely, then wrote music in his own style to connect them, creating a patchwork piece in which Schubert’s lush Romanticism dissolves into Berio’s own complex, dissonant sound world, and then back. The transitions, especially those employing the celeste, are the work of a genius.

Berio’s work becomes a riveting rumination in which Schubert is both honored and deconstructed. Even a counterpoint exercise Schubert was working on at the time to hone his own skills was put to use here, just because it worked.

Abbado addressed the audience briefly, nicely explaining the background of the work. He led a revelatory performance, delicate, witty, with vivid coloring and textures.

The evening concluded with Rossini’s Overture to “Guillaume Tell,” a work highly popular with the audience, judging by the amount of head-bobbing and air-conducting in my neighborhood. Abbado led a swift, stirring performance.