So far this season, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has presented a number of world premieres with generally delightful, engaging results.
The ASO offered yet another world premiere Thursday that sounded like a fragment of a much larger work. “Frankenstein Symphony” is composer Mark Grey’s distillation of his upcoming opera, a quasi-sequel to Mary Shelley’s seminal book. Nevertheless, it is meant to stand on its own as an enduring piece of music.
Grey’s “Frankenstein Symphony,” jointly commissioned by the ASO and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, is a highly programmatic work that draws musical material from five scenes in the opera. During a video interview with music director Robert Spano before the concert, Grey explained that the symphony is not simply a reduction of the operatic action, but uses existing thematic material to create an entirely new work.
Grey spoke of the challenge in translating an operatic vocal line into instrumental music. In places throughout the five movements, the impact of these melodic lines was lost; the piece felt simply like the accompaniment to unseen staged action. While Grey can paint sublime and serene soundscapes with lush, gorgeous string tones, some movements develop at an achingly slow pace.
Image painting is apparent from the first thunderous chords of the piece, which portray Frankenstein’s reanimation and awakening at the beginning of the opera. Thundering timpani, crashing cymbals and lots of dissonance lay the groundwork for an unsettling, ominous story. Throughout the work, Grey moves from sound to sound, creating impressions and emotions — dread, anticipation, hope. The symphony is loaded with tender pieces of music, but the energetic, up-tempo musical passages fared better. This is a work to be played loud and fast.
Filling in for guest artist Peter Serkin, who was a late scratch due to illness, pianist Jorge Federico Osorio brought a forceful tenderness to the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. From the opening melody — the strings producing a taut, unified sound that was deliciously biting and staccato — it was clear Spano and the ASO were well-prepared to match the fire and passion of their guest artist. In the end, Serkin’s absence, while disappointing, seemed a mere footnote to the evening. Osorio’s complete mastery of the material was delightful.
Osorio stood out as a soloist, of course, but worked to integrate his music making into the ensemble. He’s not a flashy player, but commands attention as much in his declarative, forte proclamations as in the tender moments, his fingers fluidly trickling up and down the keyboard. Parts of the ensemble deserve nearly as much praise as Osorio — the strings played with a churchlike quiet in the second movement, at just above a whisper, blending perfectly to create an enveloping mist of sound.
In the 1960s, pianist Glenn Gould, playing with the New York Philharmonic, gave an infamous performance of the Brahms concerto that so rankled conductor Leonard Bernstein that he gave a three-minute disclaimer, from the podium, before the performance. Bernstein didn’t agree with Gould’s decision to ignore the written tempo markings in favor of a brooding, introspective pace. Osorio gave a rousing, emotive performance while keeping the original tempo, interpreting the piece with a vividness and liveliness while sticking to the composer’s original intent.