Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of frequent guest conductor Roberto Abbado, was laser focused on the string section. The strings dominated from the opening, bite-sized String Sonata No. 1 by Rossini to the evening’s main event, the Brahms Violin Concerto with violinist Veronika Eberle. In between, the ASO strings led the charge in a stunning, assertive performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.
For the past few seasons, the Brahms concerto has become a semiyearly event at the ASO. Concertmaster David Coucheron tackled the famously difficult composition in 2016 to great success, and the superstar Joshua Bell brought the work to Symphony Hall at the tail end of the 2013-14 season. It makes sense that guest artists would come to Atlanta with the bravura piece tucked in their carry-on luggage. The work is full of dizzying virtuoso playing contrasted with passages that can showcase a violinist’s tone and musicality.
In her Atlanta debut, 28-year-old Eberle unpacked an interpretation of the concerto full of crystal-clear high notes and scorching technical passages. Her first-movement cadenza, which is crowded with a complex series of interlocking melodic leaps and jumps, was smooth, unhurried and precise.
The Brahms concerto took up the entire second half of the program. The challenge with any big-ticket, after-intermission work is to create an opening half that carries as much weight as the headliner. No audience member wants to feel like they’re biding time until the main event. In the past, the ASO has placed new music onto programs like these, nestled between a traditional-sounding opening work and a crowd-pleasing finale. But here, programming was about creating a balance. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 assumed the difficult role of equaling Brahms’ pyrotechnics, which seems like a fool’s errand, but Abbado’s Beethoven actually surpassed the magnificence of Eberle’s performance.
On any given night at Symphony Hall, the most well-known and comforting piece of music can become something different and new. The musicians themselves contribute to this sense, of course, but the guest conductors play a huge role in pushing the familiar onto an uncharted path. Abbado’s interpretation of the Beethoven symphony didn’t contain any thrilling surprises or questionable approaches; instead, he simply led the ASO in the finest overall performance of a well-trodden Beethoven No. 8 in recent memory.
The symphony, last heard from the stage under Donald Runnicles’ leadership in 2015, starts with a sucker punch of sound from the orchestra. This perfectly executed, full-orchestra wallop, trailed by an immediate decrescendo, set the tone for a powerful, affecting and insightful performance. Abbado played up these dynamic juxtapositions. Next to musicians’ soft-as-a-breath pianissimo, the fortes were thrillingly loud. He had the symphony musicians attacking each and every phrase; even more subdued passages flickered with intensity and energy.
The evening began with a chance to hear the strings, and only the strings, in Rossini’s short work. Abbado led the ASO’s maiden performance of the composition on Thursday, and while the string playing was light and playful, the melodic lines were supple and well-shaped, the brief string showcase felt a bit out of place with the rest of the program.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Roberto Abbado, Veronika Eberle
8 p.m. Nov. 8. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Nov. 10. $43-$108. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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