On a night filled with Bach and a stunning world premiere, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra eased audiences into magnificence. Instead of coming out swinging, the ASO and Chamber Chorus musicians conserved their energy for the later rounds in a juxtaposition of Baroque music and a new choral work from ASO bassist Michael Kurth.
Three hundred years separate Kurth's "Miserere," an ASO commission receiving its first public performance, from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, which began the concert as a musical palate cleanser. Establishing a root from which the rest of the evening would flower, music director Robert Spano led a stripped-down ASO in a perfectly proper recitation.
Bach’s orchestral suite is restrained music, with hints of the passion and excitement that arise in later Bach works like the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Performed after intermission by a miniature complement of the ASO grouped in the center of the stage, the Brandenburg felt dangerous and completely invigorating.
Kurth’s “Miserere,” sung in English and Latin, is derived from a number of sacred and secular sources, including the poetry of Atlanta-based Jesse Breite. As the name implies, the music begins with a somber feel. Ominous, viscous chords arose from the violins over a djembe marking out the beat. The ASO Chamber Chorus, sounding lustrously lachrymose, entered with expertly blended and shifting chords of melancholy. Kurth’s vocal writing is by far the highlight of “Miserere,” making the 50-odd-member Chamber Chorus sound nearly as powerful as the full array of choristers present for larger works.
Riffs on this beautiful, chorus-led opening movement — denoted as Miserere I, II and III and sung with Latin text from Psalm 51 — appeared throughout the eight-movement composition as way stations, grounding the music. Elsewhere, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor took charge, singing in English backed by a funk-drenched clavinet and busy percussion. She gave a rich chiaroscuro to the text, while maintaining her impeccable technique throughout a very demanding vocal range.
But at times when the full complement of symphony-soloist-chorus came together for dense passages of music, power drained from the performance. The choir lagged behind the deep percussion groove. But the groove is not a gimmick, and when the percussion gelled under the textured, melismatic choral writing, the music came alive.
The ASO Chamber Chorus returned at the end of the evening for a glorious performance of Bach’s Cantata No. 80, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” Superlatively navigating dense polyphony in the first movement, the Chamber Chorus again proved they endure as one of the ASO’s greatest treasures. While the chorus and soloists were outstanding, tenor David Walton, who possesses a sublime, lithe vocal grain, stood out.
Bach’s cantata is music written for worship. Kurth’s work is spiritual as well, operating from the idea that, as he wrote in performance notes, “we are all captive to our flawed nature, we are all unfaithful, we all doubt, and we all betray our better selves” and exploring how to maintain a strong moral compass.
Calling Kurth a new composer feels unfair. The ASO has been commissioning his symphonic works for years, but the symphony has focused its season on premiering, and polishing and refining, Kurth’s large-ensemble work. This celebration of its composer-in-residence is also preparation. In May, the ASO will reconvene in a Symphony Hall to digitize 10 Kurth compositions over four recording sessions for release on the ASO Media label next year.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus
8 p.m. March 22. Additional performance at 8 p.m. March 24. $97. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.