Robert Spano’s constellation of composers keeps expanding.
More than a decade ago, the music director assembled what he calls the Atlanta School of Composers, a five-member cohort that includes Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi. A second coterie of composers — call it Atlanta School of Composers: The New Class — has emerged in recent years. But the music director also creates loose associations with composers, bringing their music to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on a piece-by-piece basis. (The ASO’s championing of composer Jonathan Leshnoff comes to mind.) These friendships allow the ensemble to sample a variety of 21st-century compositional styles while giving these little-known artists wider exposure.
On Thursday night at Symphony Hall, the ASO and Spano turned to Latvian composer Krists Auznieks for the new music of the day. The composer, who is now based in New York City, wrote the 10-minute orchestral work “Crossing” for the Aspen Music Festival and School, of which Spano is music director, in 2018. Auznieks has stated that he created the music to bring the listener to “some other imaginary, utopian, idealistic world.” A challenging task, to be sure.
At the beginning of “Crossing,” Auznieks jabbed with an immediate burst of orchestral activity, putting the ASO on its toes from the very start. For the remainder of the short work, each section of the orchestra seems to keep the pugilistic spirit — they all had their own bits of music to weave into a coherent ensemble sound, sometimes with force. Under Spano’s careful direction, the ensemble sounded clear and bright. But the work itself didn’t present a clear focal point for the listener; no melody jumps out of the musical tangle to assert itself. Instead, “Crossing” created a mood of vibrant, nearly constant activity, pulsating almost like electronic music. Taken as a whole, “Crossing” is a richly orchestrated and complex sound collage that hums along, passing new musical ideas through the orchestra. And then, the music abruptly ended, just as jarringly as it began.
Some new compositions are immediate classics when they’re introduced to Atlanta audiences. Thursday night’s performance of “Crossing” proved that the ASO’s newest piece may need a longer introductory period, but Auznieks is certainly deserving of repeat performances.
In addition to new compositional voices, Spano is also quite fond of bringing his friends back for guest appearances. Pianist Jorge Federico Osorio has been featured frequently at Symphony Hall; his 2018 performances of the complete Beethoven piano concertos were highlights of the season. Thursday, he took the stage with the ASO in a dazzling performance of Manuel De Falla’s “Nights in the Garden of Spain,” in which the orchestra and piano soloist become paintbrushes, globing vivid color onto canvases to create bountiful garden scenes.
In the first part of the three-movement work, shimmering violin tremolo, hushed and timid, gives way to fecund orchestration and waterfall piano arpeggios. Through it all, even in the bouncy dance movement, the ASO’s playing remained delicate and light. Even when Osorio hammered away on the keyboard and the accompaniment rose to meet his intensity, the ensemble still maintained a careful fragility, bringing a tenderness to De Falla’s evocative music.
After Thursday’s intermission, Spano took a mixtape approach, presenting selections from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” stringing together some of the most famous snippets from the ballet for nearly an hour of emotionally charged music. This greatest-hits approach took deliberate dedication and concentration from the orchestra, a commitment to not just running through the motions. The ASO’s effervescent, focused playing transformed the ballet. “Romeo and Juliet” was filled with lush, buoyant pizzicato; accompaniment from the ballet’s fight scenes blistered with combustible string ferocity; and the ensemble created delicious dynamic contrasts that kept the music tense and dangerous.
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