Robert Spano was in his element Friday night at Symphony Hall. Fresh off a concert the night before that sandwiched the world premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s exquisite piano concerto between two Aaron Copland compositions, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s leader seemed ready to celebrate his legacy.
While Spano is heading off to new pursuits next year, Friday’s concert highlighted one his greatest contributions to the ASO: his focus, over the past two decades, on performing the works of living composers. Spano has done this most publicly by founding the Atlanta School of Composers, an ever-expanding cohort of like-minded composers from whom the organization focuses its commissioning efforts.
There was reason for him to be in a celebratory mood. The one-off concert of five ASO commissions inaugurated the Spano Fund for New Music, which will ensure the ASO has the money to keep commissioning new work.
On the first half of the program, pieces by Brian Nabors and Krists Auznieks represented the newer composers that have been adopted into the ASO’s school. Nabors’ “Onward,” a propulsive and rhythmic burst of energy, received its premiere with the ASO in 2019. Auznieks is also no stranger to Atlanta; the world premiere of his “Sub Rosa” paired well with Nabors’ composition, though the polyrhythms and syncopation in the composition felt a bit staid in the orchestra’s hands. Perhaps there was simply too much going on onstage, but performing the piece sounded like hard work.
Gandolfi and composer Adam Schoenberg have been associated with the ASO for nearly as long as Spano. Gandolfi has written eight commissions for the orchestra, and Adam Schoenberg’s “La Luna Azul” first came to the ensemble in 2012. Friday night, the 13-minute “Azul” pulsed with a captivating energy. It’s a piece well known to many in the orchestra, and they performed it as if they knew it by heart.
Gandolfi’s new piece began with a piano rallying cry: guest artist Marc-Andre Hamelin pounded out a series of interlocking chords that began with a cannon blast of sound and diminished to a whisper. This evocation passed to the orchestra, which emerged with oscillating strings and a soaring horn solo — a hunter call off in the distance. All went quiet for a second piano call before the concerto shot off like a bottle rocket, bristling with passion.
Much of that energy issued from the piano. Hamelin took a jazz-like approach to the piece’s voluble runs of piano notes, where continual frothiness in the right hand was alternately echoed by the left or supported by a simpler figure. These weren’t syncopated sounds, but his controlled yet chaotic approach to the notes on the digital page Hamelin read from had an aura of improvisation. The concerto is a dazzling, thoroughly enjoyable piece of music.
Michael Kurth’s “Everything Lasts Forever,” the closer on Friday, contained so much joy. The ASO has performed the three-movement work, which zips by in under 15 minutes, a handful of times over the years and recorded it on a disc full of Kurth works, but I always forget how great it is. The music is groovy; it pulses; the instruments sing out with catchy melodies. Kurth, who has been a member of the ASO’s bass section since 1994, surely deserves wider recognition as a vital and intriguing classical voice.
Friday’s program, designed as a showcase of living composers and the ASO’s commissioning activities, might have been too much new music for some. Would listeners rather hear Beethoven and a 19th-century piece on their journey to something written by a composer sitting in the audience? It’s hard to say. But however the vital work of living composers is presented by the ASO to future audiences, the fund will ensure that Atlantans will be able to ask these questions and to think critically about new works well after Spano leaves the city.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Nov. 19. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.