Review: ASO performs a musical joke from a Russian master

The third movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, the midway point of a heady masterwork played brilliantly by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Thursday, is a bit of levity, a bright musical joke.

At the start of the movement, the entire ASO string section, led by guest conductor Michael Stern, set their bows aside and started plucking. For a moment, the rest of the musicians simply listened. The piece of music, which for the strings is played pizzicato in totality, immediately took on a buoyant energy, and it seemed to come out of nowhere.

After the boisterous forte passages of the first movement and the heart-rending melodicism of the second, it served as a bit of unabashed fun in the midst of a Russian masterwork. Of course, performances of the third movement vary widely, and Stern chose to bring an undercurrent of fun and joy to the piece of music. Soon after the opening pizzicato dialogue among the violin, cello and bass sections, the woodwinds, led by Elizabeth Koch Tiscione on oboe, joined with a jaunty, pastoral quintet, full of light trills and ornamentation.

Tchaikovsky’s musical jokes didn’t stop at the third movement, though. Under Stern’s impassioned baton, the orchestra produced teeth-rattling forte passages in the fifth movement, which turned abruptly into complete silence. The juxtaposition, which was exaggerated by Stern, emphasized Tchaikovsky’s wittiness.

Those last two movements came as a breather in a night of serious music bookended by thundering horns — revelatory, heralding trumpets at the beginning of Dmitri Shostakovich's six-minute "Festive Overture," and menacing, dark French horns to start the Tchaikovsky symphony. Taken together with Nikolai Medtner's Piano Concerto No. 2, which was performed with guest pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the concert functioned as an inquiry into the evolution of Russian classical music.

Stern set a brisk tempo for the nearly omnipresent “Festive Overture,” which led to a frenzied clarinet solo on the main theme, with principal clarinet Laura Ardan swiftly and adeptly dispatching the vertiginous melody. The Shostakovich is an apt opener for nearly any concert, and it is still magnificent when played well, but the piece was particularly welcome as an introduction to the Medtner concerto.

During the concerto, Hamelin handled the pointy melodies with a nearly percussive approach, in the next instance, issuing liquescent chromatic passages by barely even touching the keyboard. Hamelin’s performance, full of spellbinding technique and beautiful musicality, was stirring, but the entire performance fell victim to comparison. Stern and the ASO’s performance of the Tchaikovsky took all the air out of the room.

Stern is a dynamic force on the podium, conducting with exaggerated gestures and forceful mannerisms, truly exerting all his energy during the performance. During the curtain call, he looked positively wiped out, gingerly moving toward the center of the stage, as if he couldn’t possibly summon the strength to duplicate his masterful Tchaikovsky performance. But as he took his bow, he gave the audience a bright smile, and his wariness seemed to lift. Saturday is another day.


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Michael Stern and Marc-André Hamelin

8 p.m. March 9. Additional performance at 8 p.m. March 11. $25-$94. Casual Friday performance at 6 p.m. March 10. $25. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000,