‘Nutcracker’ redeems an otherwise commonplace ASO concert

In 1957, Arthur Fiedler, who had by then led the Boston Pops Orchestra for nearly three decades, breezed into Atlanta on a late December evening for a quasi-holiday music program. Nestled among Gaetano Maria Schiassi’s “Christmas Symphony” and, um, Ravel’s “Bolero,” the celebrity conductor led the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a series of dances that have become synonymous with the season: Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” suite.

The Russian composer’s ballet music is a mainstay of the holidays, and bits and bobs have been programmed by the ASO for years as part of special holiday concerts (catch some of the tunes Dec. 15-18 during “Christmas with the ASO,” led by Director of Choruses Norman Mackenzie). But according to the program notes, Tchaikovsky’s suite hasn’t been part of a subscription concert since that showcase 65 years ago.

In her first year as music director, Nathalie Stutzmann, trying to fit another trip to Atlanta before the end of the year into her busy schedule, took up the “Nutcracker” mantle Thursday at Symphony Hall. The mixed program featured a sluggish first half devoted to Bizet; the Tchaikovsky emerged as a glittering jewel in an otherwise average, and very quick, concert.

You’ll have to go back to the time of Yoel Levi, a shade more than 28 years ago, to find the last instance of Bizet’s Symphony in C Major in a subscription concert. Taken at a sprightly pace Thursday, the innocuous music might be a good introduction to the orchestra for skeptical listeners, but the composition certainly doesn’t show off the caliber of musicianship that has defined the ASO of late. During the piece, the orchestra stumbled slightly — the horn section, in the subtle adagio movement, was unable to carry an exposed introduction — but the musicians also provided moments of exquisite beauty. In the second movement, Zachary Boeding’s oboe solo rang out with an assured but delicate swagger; the third movement came alive when a low-string drone figure opened up to a pastoral woodwind theme.

Stutzman preceded the Symphony in C, a piece Bizet wrote at 17 in homage to his mentor, with a composition the composer premiered at 36, months before his untimely death. The famous overture to “Carmen” opened the program as a gentle breeze — pleasant and gone in a moment, but an inadequate tune-up for a concert light in demanding material.

On the second half of the program, Stutzmann turned the omnipresent “Nutcracker Suite” into a vital piece of classical music, the musicians presenting the familiar tunes with crisp power, careful dynamic control and a reading so far away from maudlin it was almost shocking. When Alcides Rodriguez, on bass clarinet, gave a little extra weight to the opening of the famous ruddy solo in “Danse de la Fee-Dragee,” the move seemed almost subversive. It was hard to square a section of music that’s been heard ad nauseum with the brilliant contrast of the bass voice with Peter Marshall’s chiming celeste and the soft pizzicato in the strings. Likewise, “Danse Chinoise,” taken at a deliberate pace with round, thudding pizzicato in the violins leading to fluttering woodwind counterpoint, sounded dynamic.

Maybe it’s too much to anticipate a stunning concert at every turn, and while Stutzmann undoubtedly shines with the chorus (I can still hear in my mind her choral debut from March), she seems to still be warming up to the orchestra — and vice versa. That’s to be expected. But while the first half of Thursday’s program was largely commonplace, Stutzmann’s “Nutcracker” should be enough to give even the most skeptical listener something to thoroughly enjoy.


CONCERT REVIEW

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Additional performances 3 p.m. Dec. 10-11. $23-$103. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.