Review: Nathalie Stutzmann begins a vibrant new era for the Atlanta Symphony

Nathalie Stutzmann launched her tenure as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s new music director — a remarkable achievement on many levels — in an unexpectedly humble way: she got straight to work.

Perhaps fitting for a star contralto-turned-conductor, Stutzmann’s inaugural program, performed Thursday at Symphony Hall, was as much about singing as about the symphony orchestra.

As the ASO’s fifth music director in its 78-year history, she was making a statement of values and artistic priorities by opening and closing the evening with Beethoven. The Ninth Symphony, with its “Ode to Joy” finale, came at the end and received thunderous cheers from the crowd. Almost everyone in the room seemed deliriously happy.

For now, there’s still much talk of Stutzmann’s remarkable career trajectory. Shockingly, she’s the only female currently serving as music director of a major American orchestra. (Marin Alsop, in Baltimore, was the only other woman to ever hold a post among U.S. orchestras at this level.) For several decades, Stutzmann was among the most celebrated contralto singers on the international opera scene, while eventually pursuing conducting full time. In the ASO music director search to replace Robert Spano after his two decades of leadership, the French-born Stutzmann leapfrogged over many much more experienced conductors to claim the prize.

After years of studying to be a conductor, away from bright spotlights, she’s suddenly in demand everywhere, with high-profile debuts filling her calendar, from the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera to the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany. Everyone wants a piece of her.

These kinds of epoch-altering events always get an introductory speech, of course. On Thursday night, ASO board chair Patrick Viguerie had something to crow about, since he led the search committee. Anticipation was so high that just the mention of Stutzmann’s name drew a standing ovation from the almost-capacity audience, expecting her grand appearance. But Viguerie wasn’t finished speaking, so we sat down again.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Moments later, soprano Talise Trevigne and Atlanta’s new music director arrived at center stage, holding hands to accept the cheers together and, with no fuss, launched into Beethoven’s “Ah! Perfido,” a moody, dramatic scene for soprano and orchestra, where a jilted lover curses her faithless ex one minute and wants the heavens to show him mercy the next. The scene is 15 minutes of early Beethoven. His powerful, unmistakable style had already formed, even as he was still polishing his craft for maximum impact and expression.

Trevigne was deluxe casting, with a theatrical delivery and a rich, bronzed soprano that soared easily over the orchestra in full fury and, in an instant, was agile enough to navigate the virtuosic passages that bedevil anyone who sings Beethoven. The ASO gave elegant, loving support.

Over many decades, Atlanta has built a national reputation for its new music programming, commissions and recordings. Making another artistic statement, Stutzmann included a world premiere on her opening concert: “Words for Departure,” a 19-minute, three-movement choral symphony by Hilary Purrington, an emerging young composer with boundless energy and an ear for beauty and emotional substance.

The words are drawn from three short poems by Louise Bogan, who served as the nation’s poet laureate in the 1940s, the first woman to hold this honor. Purrington says the text “describes and reflects on the end of a romantic relationship.”

The piece was commissioned in 2020 by the League of American Orchestras and intended for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where Stutzmann is now principal guest conductor. Composed in those first tense months of pandemic lockdowns, the music reflects the anxiety, isolation and emotional turbulence of the times. Stutzmann was scheduled to conduct the premiere in Philly, but COVID-19 shut down their season.

So she brought “Words for Departure” with her, and the ASO gave its world premiere Thursday.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

In a program note, the composer writes: “This project, which began as an analysis of an imagined relationship, turned into a meditation on the importance of investing in others and examining how we treat one another.”

The music starts with a splash of orchestral color — a big, American sound — but quickly picks up a steady pulse, with the piano tapping out a C-sharp endlessly. The men of the ASO Chorus, in hushed tones, chant the opening lines, “Nothing was remembered, nothing forgotten,” over and over. It becomes neurotic chatter, or perhaps scene painting: “The windowsills were wet from rain in the night.”

Purrington’s style fits the ASO’s fondness for tonal, post-minimalist composers who often reach for the big gesture — even when it feels unearned or inappropriate — à la Leonard Bernstein. There are balance and clarity issues in the first movement, and Purrington seems to be experimenting with techniques to suit the text. But along the way she finds moments of urgency and real beauty. The broad and low drone that opens the second movement sets us up for the line, “I have remembered you.” The chirps and gentle plinks in the third conjure, wonderfully, a kind of urban pastoral landscape. Purrington has a lot to say, and she’s finding her own voice.

Stutzmann’s reading of Beethoven’s Ninth was a more complicated affair, and offered hints of her interpretive approach. A lot of it was messy and sounded under-rehearsed, which is surprising for a piece so ultra-familiar to this orchestra and chorus. It sounded like the conductor took everything apart in rehearsal and didn’t have quite enough time to put it back together. Yet parts of it were as alive and probing as I’ve heard in a long time.

It quickly became clear that Stutzmann is interested in rhetoric, where phrases are delivered almost as speech. Throughout the symphony, there was an improvisational, let’s-figure-this-out-as-we-go vibe that set the listener on edge — what could possibly happen next? Alas, they couldn’t sustain that level of attention within each movement. The conductor seemed to be shaping ideas as much as the music itself, but often the basics, like a string tone to match the power and color of the woodwinds, felt neglected.

The outstanding vocal quartet — soprano Trevigne, mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Robin Tritschler, baritone Leon Košavić — was unfortunately stationed behind the orchestra, standing among the choristers. Considering Symphony Hall’s poor acoustics, this dulls even the most beautiful voices and their impact.

In all, this might not have been a Beethoven’s Ninth for the ages, but seems a healthy start to a new collaboration, of high values and exploration. The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

CONCERT REVIEW

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

8 p.m. Oct. 8. Additional performance at 3 p.m. Oct. 9. $35-$119. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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