Two days after music director Robert Spano, who has led the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since the 2000-2001 season, announced he will step down from his full-time duties in 2021, he took the Symphony Hall stage Thursday to a standing ovation.
Spano will leave his longtime post once he hits the two-decade mark as leader of the ensemble. He’ll thereafter take up the mantle of conductor laureate, a position Robert Shaw held after his semi-retirement in 1988.
Spano may have bowed a little lower and longer than usual at the start of the concert, but that was the only acknowledgment that anything had changed in the world of the ASO. His semi-departure is still more than three years away. So on Thursday night, it was business as usual, beginning with what has become a hallmark of Spano’s tenure in Atlanta: new music.
ASO bassist Michael Kurth’s “Everything Lasts Forever,” premiered by the ASO in 2013, is precisely the type of composition Spano champions. The piece began with “Jaws”-like plodding in the cello and bass sections, which establishes the rhythmic intensity that runs through the entire composition. Through off-kilter melodies — including a violin solo that is somehow both spiky and silky smooth — this rhythmic propulsion remains; it bubbled up as pizzicato filigree in the violins under a muted trumpet theme, and it later emerged, in the background, as a solitary martial snare drum, keeping time amid a dialogue between flutes and violins.
This first movement, at times, turned into a wonderful cacophony, thrillingly disorienting in its rhythmic verbosity. This all set up the second movement, which utilized silence and space instead of constant motion. The pulsing rhythms returned in the final movement, but were restrained under hopeful, optimistic melodies. In part, “Everything Lasts Forever” is a rumination on impermanence. But the final notes of the third movement are enough to sustain a sunny outlook for quite a while.
The second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” carried forward the rhythmic theme of Kurth’s piece by presenting the syncopated, quasi-jazz melodies that run through most Bernstein works. And while the first two movements — packed with emotional playing and lush orchestral writing — were affecting and poignant, a moment in the final bars of the piece pushed everything else to the background. Toward the end of the operatic third movement, mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano cried, filled with rage and emotion, “Depart ye! Unclean.” In full voice, Cano uttered this judgment, then stopped, shaking with fury. In this momentary pause, she let the anger wash away; returning in the next phrase, with soft sweetness, she asked for forgiveness. In that short passage, Cano elegantly interpreted the mastery at the heart of Bernstein’s earliest symphony.
Pianist Jorge Federico Osorio, the second guest artist of the evening, will make Symphony Hall his second home for the next month, as he helps the ASO perform all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos. Beginning his residency with Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” Osorio showed the audience the bubbly, rambunctious side of Beethoven.
Throughout the work, Osorio dexterously navigated fluid, finger-twisting passages that had him skipping up and down the entire range of the keyboard in various intervallic combinations. The piece began with an extended solo section, accented with short chordal punches from the orchestra — encouragement in the form of musical accents. While this opening passage was far from the only unaccompanied flight of piano fancy, the orchestra functions as more than just a bystander to pianistic fireworks. In this introduction to a monthlong partnership, both parties played their roles with vigor.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Jorge Federico Osorio and Jennifer Johnson Cano
8 p.m. Jan. 25. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Jan. 27. $22-$97. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.
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