Virtuosic concerto compositions — technically difficult musical flights of fancy — are thrilling to behold and serve as a vehicle to showcase proficiency and musicality. When the violin is the instrument in question, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra always has a bravura musician on call.
David Coucheron has served as concertmaster of the ASO since the 2010-2011 season. Since then, he has collected an array of concerto performances. Last season, it was the Saint-Saens Violin Concerto, and in the prior season, he tackled Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Along the way, he has also performed the Brahms Violin Concerto in D, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 and Barber’s Violin Concerto.
Thursday he approached a lesser-known work, Russian composer Julius Conus’ Violin Concerto in E Minor. During the three-movement work, which is played without pause, Coucheron’s tone was light and jaunty, dark and sonorous. His ability to easily navigate dense passages of notes was on full display, especially during the cadenza that bridged the last two movements.
For a post-concerto encore, he asked Julianne Lee, the ASO’s principal second violin, to the stage for another lesser-known work, Concert Caprice for Two Violins by Johan Halvorson. The beauty of the six-minute piece, which is constructed of fast arpeggios and violin harmonics, nearly surpassed Coucheron’s prior performance.
Thursday night, guest conductor Henrik Nánási took up the task of leading the ASO. There’s been a bit of a build up for the debut Nánási, who is most often heard in opera circles. Nánási was to debut last season, but the Hungarian conductor had to delay his first performance at Symphony Hall, with ASO Assistant Conductor Stephen Mulligan stepping in at the last minute. ASO Music Director Robert Spano is stepping down after the 2020-2021 season, and it’s impossible to not see every guest artist as a possibility for the soon-to-be-vacant position. Of course, not every conductor who spends a week in Atlanta for performances will be considered for the leadership role, but Nánási’s musical rapport with the symphony and his attention to the drama inherent in Thursday’s program certainly made an impression.
During the second half of the program, Nánási helped the symphony bring out all the majesty, whimsy and dark textures in Tchaikovsky’s wide-ranging Symphony No. 4. At the start of the symphony, the heraldic horns, which open the work with a blast of noble brass, were a bit muted, but this created even more room for a dramatic increase in both dynamics and intensity. After the stout first movement, shimmering string harmonies ushered in skip-through-the-meadow woodwind sixteenth notes, creating a starkly different sound world. The ASO’s woodwind section took the spotlight here, as in the capricious third movement, where the section answered string pizzicato questions with cheerful rejoinders.
Zoltan Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” the first piece on Thursday’s program, began with a strident figure in the cellos and clouds of musical effervescence in the violins, but the piece quickly became fixated on the clarinet. Laura Ardan earned the spotlight, dancing and twirling through her instrument across the entire piece. Kodaly’s “Dances” hadn’t been heard from the Symphony Hall stage in a decade, and the short, one-movement dance proved a welcome introductory piece to a night anchored by a dazzling violin performance.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with soloist David Coucheron
8 p.m. March 7. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Tonight. $22-$88. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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