Over the past few seasons, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has built quite a precedent for producing memorable concerts by plucking featured artists from within its ranks. The orchestra once again highlighted its own Thursday night, featuring principal trumpeter Stuart Stephenson in Franz Joseph Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major.
Stephenson has a ruddy, almost amber sound, and he negotiated Haydn’s acrobatic writing, which gets especially gymnastic in the finale of the three-movement work, with a vibrant flexibility. In the first movement’s cadenza, Stephenson took his time, deliberately sounding out each note after wide melodic leaps, warming to a series of crowning high notes. The Baroque composition, sandwiched between two more complex works, could have sounded a bit out of touch with the rest of the program, but Stephenson’s dark tone gave the performance a vivid shine.
Guest conductor Peter Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, led the pared-down orchestra somewhat quickly during the first half of the program, which also contained “Capriccio espagnol” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. During this first selection, the conductor set a brisk tempo that seemed to leave some musicians playing a momentary game of catchup. With this added eagerness, though, the Rimsky-Korsakov, a bubbly bit of fun, took on a powerful, aggressive feel.
From the ensemble, principal clarinetist Laura Ardan, concertmaster David Coucheron and others performed brilliantly in extensive solos during the turn-of-the-century Russian piece. The first movement featured a sparkling Ardan melody that took on a folk tinge when passed to Coucheron, who bounced his bow over the strings in a fiddle-like fashion. While each soloist played above the orchestra, they all stayed within the confines of the piece, careful to not detract from the carefully crafted ensemble sound.
Thursday’s prize piece, the Concerto for Orchestra by Bela Bartok, is a sinewy work filled with abrupt contrasts in feel that builds to a riotous, cacophonous ending. The tumultuous, dissonant composition, composed during the last years of Bartok’s life, is inherently dark. In the opening bars, the ASO’s bass and cello sections translated this ominous feeling with unbridled passion, Oundjian conducting them by almost shaping phrases with his hands in midair. Careful attention to detail, even in the most raucous sections of the composition, and expert ensemble playing made this the highlight of the evening.
Oundjian is a frequent visitor to Atlanta who last led the ASO during the closing month of the 2015-2016 season, so the musicians are familiar with his conducting style. From the podium, he exudes a down-to-business approach, taking little time between movements to prepare for music making. While at first this tendency to jump right in seemed to work to the orchestra’s disadvantage, the musicians ended up playing with greater intensity. While the night belonged to the Bartok concerto, Oundjian and the ASO performed each work with an engaging energy. Here’s hoping that Oundjian will once again return to Atlanta next season.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Peter Oundjian, Stuart Stephenson
8 p.m. Jan. 5. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Jan. 7. $20-$89. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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