Thursday night at Symphony Hall, unexpected circumstances, and a last-minute substitution by the phenomenal pianist Stewart Goodyear, led to sublime music making.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Vasily Petrenko, had been gearing up for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Ingrid Filter. Bookmarked by Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, the frenetic, explosive solo vehicle was to be one of the highlights of the evening.
The ASO announced earlier in the week that Filter was unable to make the trip to Atlanta. As far as last-minute replacements go, the ASO completely lucked out.
Less than a month ago, Goodyear performed at the Savannah Music Festival, where he took on the entire oeuvre of Beethoven sonatas in three concerts spread across a single day. Thirty-two sonatas in one day is a Herculean task; for comparison, pianist Jonathan Biss will present a similar program for the ASO, meting out Beethoven’s sonatas across the next two seasons in a series of chamber concerts.
While Goodyear didn’t need quite as much stamina Thursday, he brought a passionate intensity to the Mendelssohn. The show piece treats the orchestra as a supporting ensemble and puts all the heavy lifting on the soloist, who spends most of the time with his fingers running up and down the keyboard, creating a babbling current of notes, a swift undertow swirling and churning beneath the surface. With a workmanlike determination, Goodyear deftly danced through the piece, crafting musicality from movements that could sound like etude studies in less experienced hands.
The evening opened with Don Juan, a soaring movie-score of a work that sees the cavalier Don Juan character not as a swashbuckling rogue but a more sensitive soul searching, in vain, for love. The piece has a grand, royal sound that highlights the ensemble’s vast abilities.
Strauss framed Don Juan as a bit of a melancholy soul, who is in turns playful and passionate, and guest conductor Petrenko helped guide the orchestra through these myriad musical developments. In one passage, lightning-fast violin figures ascend with biting haste up a musical scale, but that aggression soon turned to a spritz of a sound, with the strings enveloping the rest of the ensemble in a light mist.
The strongest melodies of the evening arose during Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. An energetic ensemble performed the lively music with determination, culminating in a final movement of euphoric cacophony. But it’s not a light bit of music at all. The piece has everything — forte horn calls with the strings wailing away on a sawing tremolo, ascendant violin zips amid heavy horn dissonance, deliciously difficult, finger-waggling runs — but taken as a whole, these individually showy bits of playing work to form a coherent, and lovely, composition.
Through it all, guest conductor Petrenko pantomimed and guided the musicians with dynamic contortions. His conducting arsenal makes heavy use of swooping arm movement — demonstrative of a floating, soaring musical passage — and pugilistic jerks to illustrate intense staccato figures.
The substitute Goodyear served as the undisputed highlight of the evening, but the animated leadership of Petrenko and the stellar abilities of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra proved a delight.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Vasily Petrenko and Stewart Goodyear
8 p.m. April 27. Additional performance at 8 p.m. April 29. $20-$99. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC