Review: ASO subs brilliant Beethoven for ailing Andre Watts

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra plays Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 so well, and with so much passion, that they decided to play it twice this season.

Thursday night’s season finale concert — a tip-of-the-cap to a satisfying nine months of music — was billed as an all-Brahms affair. Pianist Andre Watts, a frequent guest artist, was to return to Symphony Hall on Thursday to play Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 only two years after his last ASO performance. Unfortunately, back spasms can sideline even the greatest performer, and Watts spent the concert in his hotel room. (The pianist is still planning to play with the ASO on Saturday and Sunday.)

So it was up to Beethoven to fill the void. The ensemble last performed the Beethoven work in November on a concert with the world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 2. Back then, as on Thursday, the ensemble played as a studied, polished unit. The ASO rose to the challenge and more than filled in for the ailing Watts. The string section briskly danced through melodies; the ASO’s horns played majestic, soaring phrases that lord over folk-sounding music in the woodwinds.

The Beethoven is quite a crowd-pleasing work to have in an ensemble’s back pocket and work up in a moment’s notice; the fact that it headlined a concert only a few months back didn’t detract from the performance. The musicians played the piece with familiarity, but approached the repeat performance with verve and tenacity, which came shining through in the music. Short, rhythmic phrases permeate the work, and these pointy jabs cut like daggers in the strings before flowing seamlessly into long rubato phrases. The ASO woodwind section is truly something to behold. During the Beethoven, the musicians played beautiful, arched phrases, adding a rich, tonal depth atop lush strings.

The woodwinds also played a large part in Brahms Symphony No. 2, with Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, on oboe, again playing brief solos that rose, sinewy and adenoidal, from the ensemble. Similarities abounded in the feel and sound of the two Romantic compositions, though the Brahms seemed more subtle and subversive in the hands of music director Robert Spano. Principal horn Brice Andrus shouldered solo responsibilities, his sound full and round as he sang out above the orchestra. During the season, the ASO has gone to the Brahms well time and again, with exceptional results.

In a season filled with impassioned performances of 20th- and 21st-century music, Spano and the ASO went with the sure-fire crowd-pleasers to tie a ribbon on the 2015-2016 season. In September, the ensemble began with a resurrection, hoping that Mahler’s glorious Symphony No. 2 (and the awesome power of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus) would help heal the symphony, its musicians and the community after an ugly lockout. As the ensemble whipped up a frenzied, thrilling accelerando during the closing bars of Brahms Symphony No. 2 last night, it was easy to think, “mission accomplished.”

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