Atlanta Symphony Orcheatra unveils world premiere to a sparse crowd

Stefan Jackiw performs Conrad Tao's latest work Friday with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

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Stefan Jackiw performs Conrad Tao's latest work Friday with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Pandemic anxieties inspired the new violin concerto by Conrad Tao.

During the pandemic, many musicians looked inward. With nowhere to perform live for the public, artists were forced to broadcast performances online, spend time alone developing new artistic ideas and, perhaps like most of us, commit a large portion of each day to deciphering the unknown and decrypting vague or misleading information.

Conrad Tao’s new violin concerto, given its world premiere on Friday by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra led by co-artistic director Robert Spano, voices the composer’s pandemic anxieties, reflections and concerns. Violinist Stefan Jackiw, a close Tao collaborator, joined the ASO to perform the 25-minute piece, a one-movement work separated into three distinct parts.

Tao’s genesis for the composition stems from being active online during the first pandemic spring, reaching out to family and friends on a screen while making sense of pandemic guidance, swimming in a digital lake of news. For a grounding force, he looked to nature.

The concerto opened slowly Friday, with Jackiw playing ponderous, two-note chords, tiptoeing around the violin in a contemplative solo introduction. Woodwinds emerged from the orchestra as the violin voice grew more spiky and disjunct with short bursts of frenzied activity. These eruptions morphed into longer strains of musical anguish as the orchestral treatment, which began as sparse and subdued, turned cacophonous — percussive and aggressive. Jackiw punched through the noise, which tried to overtake his voice, with a cappella shrieks and pleas.

In a contrasting section, Jackiw played a mellifluous, calm song atop a gently pulsing orchestra, a sylvan reprieve before diving back into the job of making sense of a confusing, alarming and ugly world. The orchestra, a stand-in for the pandemic era, blended the natural with the digital, serene solitude with online divisiveness.

Friday, Alvin Singleton’s “Different River” was a beacon, a steadying force after Tao’s violin concerto. Singleton has a deep history with the orchestra. After becoming an artist in residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1980s, he set up shop in Atlanta full time. Singleton has also been an enduring presence during Spano’s time with the orchestra — he wrote “Miaka Kumi” to celebrate the maestro’s 10th anniversary as music director, in 2010, with “Different River” following two years later.

Both Tao’s concerto and “Different River” made extensive use of percussion, but while Tao’s drums were an agitator, Singleton used them as an awakening force. Unhurried timpani reports answered by solitary cowbell elicited a flowing, vertiginous marimba figure that set the tone for the ensemble. Soon strings evoked a graceful, smooth body of water. “Different River” demands a full range of expressiveness from the horns, a section that in the ASO’s past has had difficulty with exposed and tricky parts. On Friday, they sounded appropriately magisterial and full-bodied.

Tao’s violin concerto is important commentary on the here and now by an established piano virtuoso and an important young compositional voice that joins a burgeoning genre of pandemic art. It begs to be deciphered. Singleton’s “River” is a composition of shimmering beauty and awesome force that, even with complex harmonies and tricky musical passages, seems content to just be heard and cherished.

Spano bookended the evening with Richard Strauss — “Don Juan” to open, “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” as a closer. The ASO played both with vigor and extremely well, so while it’s a shame these Strauss works weren’t the focus of the evening, they helped create a thorough, complete program.

It’s a shame more people did not witness the evening. Symphony concerts on Friday nights are a tough sell, when the young audience these concerts are supposed to attract have seemingly an excess of entertainment options — but I was still shocked to see Symphony Hall so empty for such a big event. Tao’s appearance in Atlanta and the programming of a valued Atlanta composer would normally be celebrated.

The lack of excitement in the hall was deflating. Organizers have worked to create a safe space to hear music, but with the delta variant raging, listeners (myself included) are still hesitant to spend two hours in a room with a bunch of strangers. Here’s hoping that as case transmissions ebb and vaccinations increase, patrons return.


CONCERT REVIEW

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. September 17. Additional performance at 8 p.m. September 18. $20-$89. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.