Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård, the music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, has seen a lot of the U.S. in the last few weeks. After a six-concert RSNO tour out West, he arrived in Atlanta on Monday to prepare for a weekend of Bernstein and Beethoven with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The hectic pace of touring has apparently stayed with him.
Before Thursday’s performance of Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and Beethoven’s final symphony, Søndergård addressed the audience with obvious ebullience. The evening’s concert marked Søndergård’s third appearance with the ASO, but he told the crowd he had been angling to work with the chorus since his last trip to Atlanta. His infatuation with the ASO Chorus, adeptly prepared by Director of Choruses Norman Mackenzie, is warranted.
As a repeat guest conductor, Søndergård has proven he can work well with the symphony. An unknown was how he would utilize the chorus. It’s not often that anyone aside from music director Robert Spano or principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles gets that chance. Søndergård is only the third guest conductor in nearly a decade to lead the ASO Chorus during a subscription concert.
It’s also a rarity to hear two significant choral works on one program. The ASO and Chorus last performed “Chichester Psalms” under ASO music director Robert Spano’s baton in 2012 before taking the performance to Carnegie Hall. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony hasn’t been heard on the Symphony Hall stage since Spano conducted the first concert after the resolution of 2014’s musician lockout.
On Thursday, “Chichester Psalms” was a revelation, beginning with joyously clangorous, startle-reflex, triple-forte chords in the chorus echoed by equally spine-tingling interjections from the symphony. This settled quickly into a mixed-meter groove, the chorus lightly skipping atop a joyful orchestral accompaniment. The second movement translates the uninhibited energy of the opening inward, with the solemn, introspective choir supporting Daniel Moody’s riveting countertenor. Many of the best recordings of “Chichester Psalms” feature a boy alto in this role, but the depth and resonance of Moody’s voice make a forceful argument for countertenors everywhere.
But Bernstein’s 20-minute choral work can’t be fully realized without a talented orchestra. The violins opened the third movement with a stunning fog of sound – swirling, teeming strings creating a vibrant dissonance. The movement also featured pristine cello playing, led by acting principal Daniel Laufer.
After intermission, Søndergård approached Beethoven’s Ninth as a breathtakingly quick romp through very well-known music. Perhaps the added speed was an attempt to inject liveliness into music that is well known by most symphony-goers. While the first movement floated by on shimmering strings, Søndergård’s hasty tempos marred the second movement, which unspooled with a frenetic urgency that prized tempo before musicality.
The whippoorwill speed of the second movement foreshadowed the famous choral closing—“Ode to Joy”—sung handsomely by the ASO Chorus. All the spine-tingling, goose-bump moments were there, and the chorus sang well, but the tempos made the last movement feel, on the whole, more like a foot race than a revelation.
In the final movement, the array of soloists—soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lauricella, tenor Thomas Cooley and bass Andrea Mastroni—ably handled the vertiginous pace, but during ensemble quartet passages, it sounded like they were teetering on the edge of musical collapse. The guest artists fared much better in duet and solo settings.
As interpreters, many of the ASO’s guest conductors that have led the ensemble in recent memory give fairly straight-forward readings. Søndergård led a transcendent combined ensemble beautifully in the Bernstein, but his pacing in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony proved that an increase in musical velocity does not correlate to increased musical satisfaction.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
8 p.m. April 11. Additional performance at 8 p.m. tonight and 3 p.m. tomorrow. Sold Out. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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