Finding solace in contemporary music at the ASO

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

We all know the soundbites that accompany tragedy. We’ve heard them many times over the past few weeks. But what are the sounds after tragedy, the music that gives us space to process anger, to grieve, and then to act?

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Nicola Luisotti, presented such a composition on Thursday. Programmed far in advance of the evening, Elisabetta Brusa’s “Adagio,” written in 1996 for string ensemble, was nevertheless the right sound for this fraught and confusing time. The Italian composer took inspiration for the 13-minute work from famous adagios of the past, but the first minute of the work, where strings shriek out in agony, presenting mourning not as quiet solitude but as searing pain, puts the work in a category all its own.

Art gives us room to confront the unthinkable, a space to react in our own way where discourse fails. In Brusa’s short piece, I heard a threnody, one which could eventually turn into a celebration of life but was now concerned with the immediacy of suffering. There’s a luxuriant tension to the opening of “Adagio.” Thursday, it felt so intensely present as to be tailored to this exact time in life— tragedy wrought by gun violence and the overwhelming rage that accompanies the debilitating sadness of these events. Instead of quiet mourning, “Adagio” confronts pain, expressing grief by keeping everything front and center.

Neither abrasive nor confrontational, Brusa’s writing creates an aural landscape tailored for reflection with an undercurrent of warmth. Luisotti brought out the singing melodies in “Adagio,” providing washes of hope and comfort amid sorrow, played beautifully and then with an edge of gritty rancor by an ensemble of ASO strings. Instead of opening fresh wounds, music like this serves as a balm, somehow providing comfort when finding comfort seems impossible.

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

By all accounts, following Brusa’s composition with an 18th-century oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello, with ASO principal oboe Elizabeth Koch Tiscione in the solo role, should not have worked as well as it did. Koch Tiscione’s oboe sound is round and deep, and she kept this ruddy tone throughout dizzying Baroque runs of notes. I’ve written before that the ASO never regrets shining the spotlight on its musicians, and Koch Tiscione, who joined the ASO in 2007, is a perfect example of that rule. The orchestra hadn’t played the concerto since 1979, and it proved exactly the right showcase for her prodigious talents.

This concert series also marks the end of an unofficial Luisotti festival. The maestro has been with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for weeks, guiding the symphony through a recital of Verdi opera and last week’s one-night gala performance with violinist Itzhak Perlman. The Italian conductor hasn’t been a stranger to the ASO — he had been booked for a May 2020 concert of Mahler’s fourth symphony — and I can’t recall such an extended, or heralded, visit by a guest. While Luisotti has kept the ASO in top shape, former music director Robert Spano will be back at the podium on June 9 to close the 2021-2022 season and his time with the ASO. In a bit of pre-departure ceremony, Spano took the stage Thursday to recognize six retiring members of the orchestra. Unearthing a magnificent oboe concerto, which was last performed by the ASO when some of the retirees were still feeling out their places in their new ASO home, seemed an apt farewell.


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Additional performance 8 p.m. May 28. $18-$110. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000,