Review: ASO premieres complex, wonderful piano concerto

Pianist Inon Barnatan performs Alan Fletcher’s Piano Concerto with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. CONTRIBUTED BY NUNNALLY RAWSON

Pianist Inon Barnatan performs Alan Fletcher’s Piano Concerto with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. CONTRIBUTED BY NUNNALLY RAWSON

One evening last July, on the grounds of the Aspen Music Festival and School, Robert Spano and pianist Inon Barnatan gave the world premiere of a just-completed piano work by the festival's president and CEO, Alan Fletcher. Spano, who is the festival's music director, has worked with Fletcher in Aspen since 2012, and the composer wrote the concerto specifically for Barnatan.

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, the concerto — a 2017 co-commission of AMFS, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — made its local debut in the final concert series of the ASO's 73rd season.

Spano is intimately familiar with the work and the composer, so it’s not a stretch to say Thursday’s performance of the concerto — juxtaposed with the thundering “Scheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov and the subdued “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Debussy — was definitive. The three-movement piano concerto is loosely based around a series of songs; whole-cloth quotes from these tunes bubble up from the ensemble throughout the work.

Thinking strictly about the notes, Fletcher’s piano concerto is an inscrutable piece, a work that seems forbiddingly difficult for the musicians to perform. But it is a revelation to hear. This difficulty was obvious from nearly the start of the piece where, after a lovely, tonal introduction by solo piano, thorny, branching bits of dissonance rose from the orchestra. The piano melded into this brilliantly chaotic ensemble playing; distinct voices rose from the ensemble, at times competing with each other, and contributed to the composition’s inherent tension. The sum effect? Blissful immersion in a complex, and at times confounding, sound world.

A sense of opposition between the placid and turbulent — with the solo pianist working out his conflicting emotions on stage in real time — defines Fletcher’s concerto. There’s a sense that the composition is driving toward an elusive resolution on the horizon. The struggle toward that realization is, of course, not linear. For instance, the last movement begins with a jazzy muted trumpet solo that is surprising because it comes out of nowhere. The rest of the ensemble remains engaged in a searching musical discourse, but the jazzy left turn brings out a little humor in the dense, but rewarding, work.

The sprawling spectacle of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," a masterpiece of fiery, passionate music based on "One Thousand and One Nights," took up the second half of the program. In the hands of a lesser conductor, and a less capable orchestra, "Scheherazade" could easily sound boorish and gaudy. Spano knows when to emphasize the aggression and enmity in the score, and when to back off, letting the sweetness of a woodwind line rise to the top. Perfectly attuned ensemble playing is the key here, but "Scheherazade" can also fall flat without electrifying soloists. Throughout the work, David Coucheron's violin played the role of the clever, charming Scheherazade. His performance had an edge of mystery, perhaps a bit of cynicism, balanced out with sweetness and charm.

It might seem odd that Fletcher's piano concerto, a gripping new work, should close the first season of the symphony's two-year-long celebration of Bernstein and Beethoven. But the composition was a reminder that Spano's dedication to new music is a fundamental part of his role as music director and has become an enduring part of the ASO.


Inon Barnatan with the ASO

8 p.m. June 7. Additional performance at 8 p.m. June 9. $22-$97. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000,

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People 2 People: May 26,2018