Emotions, and Midori, dominate at Symphony Hall

Guest conductor Juanjo Meja leads Midori and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Courtesy of Rafterman
Caption
Guest conductor Juanjo Meja leads Midori and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Courtesy of Rafterman

Credit: Raftermen

Credit: Raftermen

On Thursday at Symphony Hall, under the baton of guest conductor Juanjo Meja, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra opened with James Lee III’s “Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula” from 2011. After a blaring fanfare — commemoration, Lee notes in the program, of the beginning of the Hebrew Feast of the Tabernacles — the music shifts. This is no longer terra firma; it’s the final frontier: The brass section leads an exploration into unknown, mystical space, extending the festival to the stars.

Under Meja’s direction, deliberate but careful to bring out the emotional content of the work, the ASO handled the tricky technical requirements of “Sukkot” quite well, if at times the brass overpowered the strings. In the piece, a short, tight snare roll and pounding bass drum herald a disassociated, fragmentary brass fanfare. It all feels celebratory and familiar, like a grand party is about to begin, but then sawing dissonances take over in the strings and the uneven festival ground gives way.

I appreciate the ASO’s dedication to frequently presenting thought-provoking new music either as an opener or sandwiched between more familiar works. These pieces are not always enthusiastically received, but new music is a definite ASO calling card for music director Robert Spano. Even when the music is at first confusing, performing new music is commendable and has, over the years, attuned the ears of Atlanta listeners to more contemporary sounds.

After the ASO’s celebrated performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 last week under music director designate Nathalie Stutzmann, violin powerhouse Midori brought a flashier, more biting version of the composer to Symphony Hall. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto was last performed on the ASO stage by James Ehnes; before that, Nikolaj Znaider played the work in 2018. Even with these frequent performances, I have never heard as nuanced and dynamically thrilling a performance of the concerto from the Symphony Hall stage. Midori’s playing combines an assured technique with a rich sonority that seems like it would be impossible to maintain even at the uppermost limits of the violin’s register. In a supporting role, the ASO seemed to be following Midori, trying to capture the confidence and, at times, controlled ferocity coming from her instrument. In a showcase role, as one of the stars slated to perform this season, Midori met and surpassed expectations.

It’s important to note that there is a phenomenon still very present in Symphony Hall, at least for this listener. For 18 months (or thereabouts), live music did not exist. For something that is so much a part of life in Atlanta, that’s a devastating sentence to write. Now that music has returned, I see myself approaching each concert with unabashed delight, which doesn’t mean hearing live music with a critical ear is no longer important. I know this feeling will dissipate over time, but I hope we can all find a way to make this joy last. I was reticent about attending concerts again with everything that’s going on in the world, but my experiences at Symphony Hall have all felt completely safe. But more importantly, these visits have felt vital and necessary.

To close Thursday’s performance, Meja brought out Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, a work meant to be played without pause, each movement flowing into the next. This was a radical idea when Schumann composed the work in the early 1840s — the ASO performed the common revised version, which the composer completed himself, from 1851. This symphony served as a callback to the searching ideas and themes in Lee’s composition, though the Schumann starts not with a bang, but with slow, interlocking lines that create a foreboding theme in D minor. The sinewy chromaticisms brim with emotion, and the ASO captured this heart-on-the-page writing.

The emotion, and exuberance, of performance is certainly present at Symphony Hall. As vaccine acceptance continues and delta variant infections wane, I hope more listeners can be struck by the sheer joy of hearing in-person ASO performances once again.


CONCERT REVIEW

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Midori

8 p.m. Oct. 21. Additional performances at 8 p.m. on Oct. 23 and 3 p.m. on Oct. 24. $45-$120. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, aso.org.