A triumphant theme lifts from the ensemble, led by the shining Atlanta Symphony Orchestra string section, before the tune recedes, dying down to glowing pizzicato. Violinist James Ehnes grabs the melody from the air. He pokes and prods the music, stretching and arpeggiating the melody. Deconstructed, adorned with extravagant filigree, Ehnes showcases his accomplished technique while vivifying the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.
Led by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles Thursday night, the ASO began Tchaikovsky’s concerto with buoyancy and cheerfulness, and then Ehnes was off in a flash, the music leaping and bounding off his violin as he stood stock still at center stage.
In the second, slow movement of the Tchaikovsky, the grain of Ehnes’s tone shifted, affecting a deeply moving resonance. He played the andante section with such heart-rending beauty that a question arose: Had the same musician really just produced a barrage of aggressive, speed-racer attacks moments earlier? For the brisk third movement, a flash of intensely thrilling violin contortions, Ehnes regained his insistent tone.
The concerto is a showpiece, a mainstay of the repertoire that separates the good from the great. It’s hardly surprising if the insistent main theme is fresh in the minds of Atlanta audiences; violinist Nikolaj Znaider performed it in Atlanta a little more than a year ago.
On the first half of Thursday’s program, Shostakovich’s 15th symphony began with whimsy, in the form of Christina Smith’s skipping flute line, carefree in its roaming over slightly ominous orchestral music. In the first movement, febrile melodies mashed up against each other, appearing as they would in a wandering mind, earworms entering and exiting consciousness. Shostakovich sketched out the symphony in a hospital bed, and it’s not a stretch to think of a bedridden composer, reflecting on his life, hearing strains of melodies emerge and die down in quick succession.
In the second, slow movement, concertmaster David Coucheron and principal cello Rainer Eudeikis played solos that were somehow both frisky and mournful, full of regret but also hope. Eudeikis’ cello sounded in protracted, echoing tones, his slow vibrato adding a luxuriant sadness. He then moved from low sonorous notes to strident cries at the top of his instrument. Coucheron echoed with an equal amount of anger tinged with grief. Splashes of dissonances emerged from the rest of the orchestra; in the horns, a choral scream of foreboding.
There were broad gulfs of stillness in the Shostakovich separated by waves of cacophony, but in these near-silent spaces, when only one or two musicians performed, the ASO excelled. These deliberate, plodding notes were fully exposed, almost tasking the musicians with propping up the entire symphony by themselves. Runnicles exerted expert dynamic control and musical precision throughout, maintaining musical order as, especially in the first movement, torrents of music crashed up against one another.
Shostakovich’s final symphony is a confusing composition, but it is nonetheless comforting in its inscrutability. There’s a larger meaning there, but it’s hard to know what it is, or if the message even matters. With the ASO, it came across as a charming, engaging work, if a bit of a mournful set up for the electrifying, dizzying Tchaikovsky violin concerto.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with James Ehnes
8 p.m. Saturday. $22-$98. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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