The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began its 73rd season Thursday at Symphony Hall in familiar fashion. With many of the musicians standing and facing the audience, the ensemble executed a familiar, tuneful arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Unabashed audience participation met this bit of opening-night historical precedent.
After intermission, Music Director Robert Spano and the musicians took a more modern approach to the national tune, performing the world premiere of an arrangement by ASO bassist Michael Kurth. His off-kilter, percussion-driven "Banner" highlights an issue nearly every pregame performer has learned at some point — simpler is better. Kurth's arrangement is a rollicking take on the staid tune, chopping up the hummable melody among various members of the ensemble, while the percussion provides a disorienting groove. Thursday night, the ASO had trouble syncing these two parts, giving the appearance sometimes that musicians were playing two separate pieces.
With a little more seasoning, Kurth’s intriguing take on the “Banner” could well become the song needed for today’s confusing, disorienting climate.
Kurth's "A Thousand Words" — a symphony-length series of musical snapshots — fared much better. An ASO commission premiered during the 2015-2016 season, "A Thousand Words" is a staggering achievement. "Above: Radiance," a masterstroke of a movement, starts things off with a subtle, serene orchestral depiction of sunrise. The calmingly beautiful movement slowly builds steadily toward triumphant horns and shimmering strings.
Kurth’s work features a broad range of music. The piece lacks distinct, singable melodies, but when the composer’s complex rhythms, shifting meters and tricky melodic figures work well together, the result is engaging and transfixing. Both Kurth compositions are set to be recorded by the ASO this season.
During this season and the next, the ASO will present a nearly exhaustive amount of symphonic works by Leonard Bernstein and Ludwig van Beethoven. The opening concert belonged to the first of these musical titans: Spano and the orchestra presented a plodding, self-aware version of Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety." Bernstein wrote the symphony after reading W.H. Auden's book-length poem of the same name, and the composer soon found out his programmatic work uncannily follows the poem's twists and turns. As the first voices in the introspective work, a duo of morose clarinets set a tone of despair, desolation and desperation that is an undercurrent throughout the piece.
The work is driven by piano, and the ASO invited frequent guest artist Jean-Yves Thibaudet to interpret the Bernstein composition. In Thibaudet’s hands, many of the piano lines feel like written improvisation. This is especially apparent in “The Masque” — a sprinkling of ragtime jazz filled with vertiginous phrases that nearly spin out of control. These melodies aren’t technically dazzling — this isn’t a piano concerto meant to shine the spotlight on a guest artist — but Thibaudet plays the notes in such a way as to seem like in-the-moment musical decisions, making each phrase exciting and a bit dangerous.
During the composition, anxiety constantly lingers below the surface, even during the frequent bits of musical ribaldry. After these jubilant sections, played with controlled forte by a disciplined but engaged orchestra, the music dies down to a single voice, bringing to the fore the feeling of desolation and hopelessness.
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The ASO ended Thursday’s program with the U.S. premiere of a brand-new edition of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” The new score beefs up the classic with, among other things, an expanded saxophone presence and an adjustment to the famous chorus of car horns. By scouring Gershwin’s original scores and other source material, the Gershwin estates worked with the publishers and the University of Michigan to correct some longstanding errors in the score. The result is a musical homage to Paris brimming with excitement, deftly performed by an engaging and enthusiastic set of musicians.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Sept. 21. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Sept. 23. $37-$108. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.
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