For much of the piece, the orchestra is given sparse orchestra accompaniment to play and mostly serves to prop up the percussionists. On Thursday, the first movement started with a sense of urgency, and it took a while for the orchestra, under the baton of music director Robert Spano, to gel with the soloists. There are radiant sections of music throughout the concerto, and orchestral soloists are sometimes given interesting, angular music to bring out from the accompaniment, but for the most part, the timpani players lead the way. This brings a unique timbre to the front of the orchestra, but the piece sometimes comes off as an intricate, involved percussion exercise.
Richard Prior’s “…of shadow and light… (incantations for orchestra)” opened Thursday’s program with a disquieting, ominous harp figure. That lone harp ushered in soft, ephemeral ensemble playing that quickly morphed into heavily accented rhythmic dynamism. Spano emphasized these delightful contrasts – intense but controlled cacophony juxtaposed with nearly still beauty. The composition, which the ASO premiered in 2013, seems to go by in a flash of impressionistic tone colors and, yes, a barrage of percussion. Prior is a longtime friend of the orchestra, and the ASO continues to benefit greatly from the association. (The ASO will be premiering Prior’s fourth symphony next year.)