ASO principal viola takes center stage in thrilling performance

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra likes to shine a light on its own. Whether familiar faces like concertmaster David Coucheron or relative newcomers like principal cello Rainer Eudeikis, the orchestra has more frequently in the past few years been plucking these musicians from the ensemble to command the stage as soloists (not to mention the ASO’s support of its de-facto composer-in-residence, bassist Michael Kurth).

Feb. 24 at Symphony Hall belonged to principal violist Zhenwei Shi, who joined the orchestra in 2019 at the age of 23. His first showcase will not be his last.

As a viola player, Shi regrettably doesn’t have the same wealth of concerto options from which many of his fellow string musicians benefit. And performances of those works can be few and far between. Before Thursday, William Walton’s viola concerto, written in 1929, was last performed by the ASO in 1992 when Reid Harris sat in his Shi’s chair, according to the evening’s program notes.

With Shi centerstage, the orchestra, led by principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, started Walton’s work on unsteady footing. Working through the disjunct first movement, Shi played flowing, branching viola lines to an ensemble backing dominated by pithy phrases passed around the orchestra. This first movement seemed challenging to get right; the complex, layered accompaniment — there’s a lot going on — did not fully lock in at first. It was hard for the orchestra to mirror Shi’s musical ease and grace; his deep, woody and smooth tone never faltered. The ensemble eventually caught up.

“The Green Fuse,” James B. Wilson’s 2017 rumination on a Dylan Thomas poem about blooming growth and the force that drives it, began delicately in the low strings, expanding to the rest of the string ensemble slowly. A depiction of the natural lifecycle, Wilson’s vivid music was reinforced with a video projection of plant growth layered over human aging. With such meaningful music, the short film seemed a little redundant and potentially distracting.

At full force, the strings gave off an effervescence sometimes tinged with pain and sadness. The overarching theme, though, was celebratory. Frequent ensemble sections, awash in quiet color, had an electronic music feel reminiscent of the saturated soundscapes that permeate drone and ambient-leaning music. Parts of “The Green Fuse” were a distant cousin to Harold Budd’s “The Pavilion of Dreams.” In Wilson’s work, these ambient pauses served as grounding signposts that allowed the busy, always moving upper strings a chance to reflect. While this contrapuntal motion is the driving force in the piece, these quiet reflections along the way gave deep meaning to the 10-minute work.

Runnicles closed the program with an enchanting performance of Mendelssohn’ Symphony No. 3, “Scottish.” While much of the work was full of grand, sweeping music, the second movement really shined. It sprang forth with bucolic verve, the woodwinds passing around a skipping melody before passing it to the full orchestra. Where a lot of the music is serious and at times somber, this sense of carefree jubilation, echoes of which pop up in unexpected places elsewhere in the symphony, was delightful. Runnicles’ excellent control of dynamics and his care in shaping singing melodic lines held aloft a performance that easily could have gotten bogged down in grandiosity.

It’s always a joy to see Runnicles back at the podium, and his expert guidance of the Mendelssohn symphony did not disappoint. Here’s hoping we see a lot more of him next season, which looks like it will be a very busy one for new music director Nathalie Stutzmann. The Metropolitan Opera announced this week that Stutzmann will make her Met debut in 2023. These appearances will come toward the end of her first full season here in Atlanta (details of which should be arriving in the next few weeks). Add to this her duties in Philadelphia and the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra, and it’s easy to see how her schedule is already jam-packed. It will be nice, then, for her to know that when engaging dynamic guest artists, she’ll only have to look within the orchestra.

CONCERT REVIEW

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Additional performance 8 p.m. Feb. 26. $23-$110. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.