Spano and ASO offer elegant Beethoven, cautious Mahler and new fanfare

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra opened its 66th season, last week, with a program similar in outline to what’s being played this weekend in Symphony Hall: a brief fanfare commissioned to celebrate conductor Robert Spano’s decade with the orchestra; an elegant classical-era piano concerto with a celebrity soloist; and a confessional symphony by a brash, emerging master of large-form orchestration.

But while last week’s Theofanidis-Mozart-Berlioz show was often poorly executed, Thursday’s concert was a revelation of what Spano and the ASO can accomplish when they set their minds to work. It all sounded intensely rehearsed, thoughtful and in high spirits.

Ten programs this season will open with an orchestral fanfare, an enlightened idea to honor a music director whose greatest accomplishment, arguably, is making living composers feel welcomed by an audience famously skittish about contemporary classical music.

Adam Schoenberg’s “Up!” is dedicated “To Robert.” At 29, Schoenberg’s musical voice sounds youthful, and “Up!” is breezy, anodyne and insouciant. The music is always rolling forward but doesn’t move fast. A perky piccolo trumpet blasts mini-fanfares within the fanfare. Repeated little four-note phrases ripple throughout its two and a half minutes, and the music echoes at times the cha-cha of “West Side Story” and the gentle sentimentality of a Hollywood soundtrack, along the lines of John Williams’ “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.”

Pianist Emanuel Ax is another of Spano’s welcome visitors. In Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, he seemed to be revealing new truths with every phrase. A classicist and a poet at the keyboard, Ax played with a sense of tranquility and clarity, even when the music charged along.

Ax delivered the first movement’s cadenza -- a brief, showy solo turn -- with such concentration and personality that it felt like a stand-alone composition. When the orchestra rejoined the conversation it was heartbreaking, a moment of imperishable beauty.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 followed intermission. The last time Spano conducted this work in Atlanta, in 2003, I recall it was all about anxiety and neurosis -- whether it was Mahler’s or Spano’s was hard to tell.

In the symphony, Mahler makes an enormous work out of the sounds of everyday life (circa 1880s), and it can seem a document of personal confession and psychological insight. Last week’s Berlioz “Symphonie fantastique” was likewise a first-person narrative, but Mahler isn’t telling a story with a plot, he seems to be opening his mind and grappling with his own vulnerabilities and fears and mixed-up spirituality, as if he were on Dr. Freud’s psychoanalysis couch. (Freud and Mahler met once and took a long walk; imagine a transcript of that conversation.)

Thursday’s performance of Mahler 1 was controlled, precise and personal -- but not neurotic -- as if Spano had taken it apart, examined each piece and reassembled it.

The orchestra played with lightness and elegance, almost in sympathy with Ax’s classical-era Beethoven. Spano made the symphony’s kaleidoscopic funeral march a fascinating spectacle, like watching your own death, pain free. The creepy third movement, with its off-kilter “Frère Jacques” nursery rhyme, was too careful to be gripping, but it made the finale’s violent clash all the more shocking.

Spano’s Mahler isn’t yet in the highest leagues, but the conductor is clearly investing himself in discovering his own path inside.

Pierre Ruhe is classical music critic of www.ArtsCriticATL.com

Concert review

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. 8 tonight and Saturday. $20-$83. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org

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