ASO pairs pastoral Beethoven with touching Bernstein

Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and soloist Christina Smith May 30, 2019 at Symphony Hall.

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Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and soloist Christina Smith May 30, 2019 at Symphony Hall.

In the distance, a low murmur of basses evolved into a roar of thunder, as timpani rained down lightning on a woodsy, country scene created by strings and woodwinds. The passage, which arrived briskly to start the fourth movement of Beethoven’s sixth symphony, is a veil of darkness descending on a sunny, optimistic and hopeful piece of music. But in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony, the storm doesn’t last for long.

Last Thursday, the uplifting Beethoven symphony, in a stirring performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the baton of principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, served as a reset from the pervasive but beautiful sadness on the first half of the program.

The evening began with Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, an expansive 14-minute piece of music. The third overture, which is a result of extensive editing and rewriting and editing some more, is actually one of four Beethoven composed during his lifetime in a quest to strike the correct tone for the start of his sole opera, “Fidelio.” In the end, the overture never met its original goal, and the “Leonore” is performed frequently as a standalone composition that tells the story of “Fidelio.” (Runnicles called it “the Reader’s Digest version of the opera.”)

The dark, moody music foreshadows the story of “Fidelio,” and the ASO’s performance also served as a setup for next week: Robert Spano will lead the ASO, ASO Chorus and a cast of guest vocalists in Beethoven’s opera on June 6 and 8. On Thursday, Runnicles’ treatment of the overture began with a slowly developing introduction, enveloped in quiet, ethereal strings, before increasing both speed and dynamics, leading to achingly tender music. Parts of the score were afire with confrontation and anger; the ASO played these sections with rich aggression.

Christina Smith, who has been a principal in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra flute section for more than two decades, took the spotlight for Leonard Bernstein’s touching “Halil,” an ultimately somber and reflective work that nonetheless has lively bits of Bernstein’s jazz-leaning writing. Smith began the work with a choppy melody backed first by a boisterous ensemble chord and then wisps of percussion. Throughout the piece, Smith’s resonant flute conversed, one-on-one, with different instruments in the ensemble; this sparseness of the ensemble writing gave way to full, vibrant playing from the orchestra. Smith and the orchestra emphasized the prevailing emotions – anger, edged with sorrow, occasionally blanketed by beauty.

The Beethoven symphony, the lone work on the second half of last Thursday’s program, washed all these ominous tones away in idyllic splendor, led with elegance and authority by the ASO’s exquisite group of woodwinds.

Directly before the Beethoven symphony, music director Robert Spano took the stage to introduce violinist Carol Ramirez and principal horn Brice Andrus, both of whom will be retiring at the end of the season. Ramirez joined the ASO in the ’70s, and Andrus became a member of the horn section while a student at Georgia State University in 1967.

“One of our joys of working here is the talented individuals that constitute this orchestra,” Spano said, with Runnicles by his side.

As the ensemble says goodbye to four musicians this year – violinists Frank Walton and David Braitberg have also announced their retirement – the ASO looks forward to the unknown, heading into its 75th anniversary while preparing for a new music director and what lies beyond.


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with soloist Christina Smith

8 p.m. Tonight and 3 p.m. tomorrow $28-$109. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000,

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