They’re back! ASO season opens at last

“Let us sing songs that are more cheerful, full of joy.” Those words from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, part of the program for the belated opening of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s new season, certainly reflected the mood in the room as Atlanta greeted its beloved orchestra after a bitter dispute and lockout.

The electric, “rock concert” atmosphere in the audience all evening was something new to Symphony Hall. Onstage gestures were more muted but heartwarming, especially the warm and generous expressions of ASO music director Robert Spano, whose commitment to Atlanta and the orchestra became clear during the conflict.

The originally scheduled program featuring Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Symphony” was scrapped due to a lack of rehearsal time. In addition to Beethoven, the substitute program featured ASO’s popular concertmaster, David Coucheron, performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5.

The “Turkish” concerto, as it is also called, is ideal for Coucheron as it showcases his silky, pure tone. He played with a confident flair and nice phrasing, with crisp articulation in the cadenzas and a plaintive approach to the gentler passages.

Spano took the first movement at a quick tempo, and some minor coordination problems emerged. This might have been the result of limited rehearsal time (the settlement was announced last Saturday), and the orchestra is rarely at its best on first nights. But numerous seasoned players were missing, including section leaders. During the lockout, many musicians had been working elsewhere and had contracts they couldn’t extract themselves from so quickly.

Things settled down for the last two movements, played with a sweetness to match that of Coucheron.

The Ninth was an interesting choice not only because of its celebratory focus, but because its last appearance here opened the 2011-2012 season, when the orchestra had 95 full-time players. A new contract the next year shrunk the ensemble to 88 musicians, and we are now at 77, though the settlement calls for increases back to 88 over four years. Fewer players means more use of part-timers, and 95 is often considered the minimum standard for orchestras at an international level.

It would be nice to say that the orchestra’s sound was undiminished, but that would be untrue. There were moments of murkiness in the first two movements that I can’t recall hearing here. Spano took a brisk but otherwise restrained approach, slowly pulling the various fragments into a coherent force. The adagio was sublime, luminescent.

Then came the finale with its famous “Ode to Joy.” The elegant baritone Stephen Powell was the standout of the soloists, his voice filling the hall. And nothing was amiss when the fabled ASO Chorus sang “Joy … your magic reunites. All men shall be brothers.”

Questions remain, both artistic and financial. But the ASO, the glory of the Southeast, is back in business.

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