Review: An ASO in mourning excels with Mozart, Prokofiev

Tributes to Jane Little, the record-breaking bassist who died onstage Sunday, began Thursday night at Symphony Hall even before the first note. From the stage, ASO Executive Director Jennifer Barlament talked of being overwhelmed at the worldwide response to Little’s death and told the audience that “as a family, we’re mourning her loss.”

The ASO will name a chaired bass position after Little, who spent 71 years in the orchestra, and will hold a memorial service for the bassist in the hall at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Four times since the fall of 2013, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has begun concerts with requiems for colleagues. For this evening, as with the first group of concerts after bassist Doug Sommer died of cancer in February 2014, the ensemble performed “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” The piece, drenched in mourning but with a celebratory undercurrent, is a heart-wrenchingly emotional and weighty composition.

The first selection on the night’s program, Haydn’s Symphony No. 46, suffered by comparison. Thursday marked the maiden subscription performance of the Haydn symphony, and the first appearance of Haydn on any ASO program for the past two years. Under the direction of ASO Assistant Conductor Joseph Young, the Baroque symphony sounded perfectly prim and proper, light and airy but with a courtly refinement. Young brought out a suitably loud wall of sound from the small ensemble, but the piece, filled with pastel colors, seemed like a warmup — or a few quick breaths after the heaviness of the Elgar.

The rest of the evening made the Haydn even more out of place. Pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, twin sisters who began their careers as solo artists but now have a following as the Naughton Duo, played with inspiring fire on Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Reflective imagery is trite when describing twins, but the women really do mirror each other in performance mannerisms; their technique and voice on the piano feel effortlessly the same. During bubbly passages that flowed from one piano to the other, the sisters sounded like one pianist with four hands. When playing in harmony — or solo, for that matter — it’s impossible to tell one sound from the other.

Young shined as a conductor during a sampling of excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” orchestral suites. These are romantic, programmatic works teeming with an overwhelming sense of doom and despair. Young wrung passion from the enlarged orchestra; under his direction, the musicians reached for brilliantly loud fortes, aided by a barrage of percussion, which made sweet piano passages seem even quieter. Among a battery of woodwinds, saxophonist Jan Berry Baker gave a welcome, woody thickness to the section. Baker mirrored the cellos in parts, adding depth to melodies before emerging from the orchestra with a round, bright sound during occasional short solos.

The second buzz-worthy piece of the evening also didn’t appear in the program. After curtain call upon curtain call following their Mozart performance, the Naughton Duo settled side by side at the same piano, launching into the madcap mania of Paul Schoenfield’s “Boogie.” The tune is bombastic, jazzy, dissonant, loud and forceful — wonderfully fit for an encore.

From that brief performance, the sound of rapid-fire hammering on one note and the percussive shockwave from chords that required the players to almost leap up from the piano bench before attacking the keyboard echoed throughout the rest of the evening. The most lasting reverberation, though, was the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

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