Last March, nearly a year ago to the day, guest violinist Augustin Hadelich joined the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to give an impassioned, spellbinding performance of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto.
With the Italian violinist’s authoritative double stops and tender phrasing still relatively fresh in the minds of the ASO faithful, violinist Benjamin Beilman joined the ensemble Thursday for his own interpretation of the storied work.
While Beilman filled his performance with dazzling technical feats, he wasn’t quite able to match the sonorous beauty of the earlier performance.
Beilman is a violin virtuoso. He easily skipped through the most thorny solo passages with a bell-like tone that stayed round and full up to the very top of the violin’s register. In the slower, introspective middle movement the ASO, led by music director Robert Spano, played with more passion and intensity, though Beilman still acquitted himself quite well, showing compete mastery of the material.
The Sibelius has become a regular undertaking for guest violinists. ASO Concertmaster David Coucheron even performed the piece onstage with his colleagues in May 2012. But with such frequent performances of a well-known piece of violin literature, it’s nearly impossible to hear any one guest artist in a vacuum. Comparisons must be made, and judging from recent history, Beilman’s performance didn’t quite live up to his immediate predecessor’s version of the concerto.
The ASO began the concert with a discordant trumpet blast ushering in long, branching strands of ornamented counterpoint. In this relatively new, three-movement work by Atlanta School Composer Christopher Theofanidis, the orchestra created shifting pockets of sound, passing snatches of melody through the orchestra as the group traversed a variety of soundscapes. “Dreamtime Ancestors” is an impressionistic piece of deeply harmonic music, and the relatively approachable musical language makes occasional, pointed dissonances even more profound. The piece, which was commissioned in 2015 by the New Music for America Consortium for performance by 48 orchestras throughout the country, is akin to ambient music in its approach to creating a shifting sound world. This was the first time the ASO performed “Dreamtime Ancestors,” and the concert functioned as a warmup for what might be seen as the main event: The ASO and ASO Chorus will perform his 75-minute “Creation/Creator,” which the ensemble premiered in 2015, on March 23.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has a deep relationship with Theofanidis, and also sees the composer John Adams as a kindred spirit. Spano has conducted the ensemble in four Adams works so far this season, and the collaboration has produced sublime results, most notably 2008’s concert-staged performances of the Adam’s opera “Dr. Atomic” and the debut recording of “On the Transmigration of Souls,” for which the ASO won a Grammy in 2009.
The ensemble’s Thursday performance of “Harmonielehre” – an Adams piece from 1985 that establishes much of the harmonic and rhythmic ideas used in his later operas – stood out as the gem of the evening. Spano programmed the evening with virtuosic playing and a new, engaging composition, but the subtly shifting rhythmic propulsion of Adams’ minimalism, which demands that the ensemble play myriad interlocking parts with precision, served as the best showcase for the ASO and its formidable abilities.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Benjamin Beilman
8 p.m. March 2. Additional performance at 8 p.m. March 4. $20-$49. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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