Stand-in conductor, ‘radiant’ violinist save the night for ASO

Top billing for Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert obviously went to violinist Hilary Hahn, an international superstar and the evening’s soloist. But the hero of the evening turned out to be guest conductor Thierry Fischer, making his ASO debut as an 11th hour substitute for Marc Piollet. Piollet was unable to get here due to a visa holdup, a problem increasingly common with classical musicians coming to the U.S.

When ASO officials learned of Piollet’s problem, a search led straight to Fischer, Music Director of the Utah Symphony Orchestra. He may be unknown to the vast majority of Atlantans, but Fischer had recently conducted both a complete cycle of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies as well as a cycle of Carl Nielsen’s works, giving him special fluency with the composers featured in the concert.

The result was nothing short of spectacular. The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture,” a short travel souvenir best known for the way some passages mimic the sound of waves. What stood out, setting a pattern for the evening, was the transparency of the sound Fischer elicited. His reading of the score was dynamically restrained, finding other ways to build tension, from the gentle middle to the raucous end of the work.

On Thursday morning, the distinctive voice of WABE host Lois Reitzes could be heard describing Hahn’s playing of the Beethoven Violin Concerto as “radiant,” and her NPR colleague Tom Manoff has previously used the words “restless” and “resourceful.” Here, as she performed Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, the words that came to mind were “nuanced” and “intelligent.”

The Nielsen concerto doesn’t get played much, and this was its first ASO performance. Perhaps it’s too subtle and understated. And though it is certainly technically demanding, it isn’t the kind of show-off piece both soloists and audiences enjoy. Under Hahn, it emerged as an endearing piece, warmer and more melodic than Nielsen’s other works, but with dry Nordic wit and charm.

The work highlights the soloist from beginning to end, and Hahn was riveting, elegantly dressed and poised. At times intense, then sweetly intimate, she projects a gorgeous tone and some of the best intonation you’ll hear, even in the challenging cadenza full of tenths and double stops. She has powerful volume when called for, and a finely controlled pianissimo.

Fischer and the ASO were worthy partners in this outing, with nice balances and clarity all around.

Still, and unexpectedly, the evening’s highlight was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. It’s such an over-programmed warhorse, what could this guy do to make us sit up? Quite a lot, it turns out. As in the Mendelssohn, Fischer’s ability to control the volume was arresting, as he notched it up and down from one phrase to the next. This, together with an equally tight and imaginative use of tempi, gave the work an energy I don’t recall hearing from anyone else. The tone that emerged was translucent, and each emergence of the “Fate” theme was spellbinding.

The concert was dedicated to bassist Douglas Sommer, who died this week after 25 years with the orchestra.

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