During the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s lengthy search for a new music director to replace Robert Spano, who has shaped the orchestra for two decades, guest conductors arrived in Atlanta at a steady clip to work with the ensemble. These collaborations introduced the ASO to top conductors and rising stars; they also served as job interviews: in comment cards, the musicians evaluated how conductors interacted with the orchestra, just as the audience heard a variety of artists spending long weekends in Atlanta with the hope of becoming a more permanent fixture.
The pandemic has wrecked even the best-laid plans. So by the time Nathalie Stutzmann took the stage with the ASO for the first time before a live audience Wednesday at Symphony Hall, she had already been named music director-in-waiting. The news broke Wednesday morning; when she took the stage that evening, she arrived to a lengthy standing ovation. There would be no lengthy getting-acquainted period.
This was a concert that, when announced, seemed rather ordinary save for a dynamic soloist and a rising-star guest conductor: a new work by Missy Mazzoli, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence, sandwiched between Verdi’s Overture to “La forza del destino” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. But suddenly, everything seemed weighted with meaning. The presence of a female music director designate leading the ASO in a concert featuring a new work written by a woman heralded a new direction for the ensemble. It’s unfortunate that in 2021 gender in classical music is news, but it sends a message nonetheless.
Though written in 2018, Mazzoli’s 15–minute chamber work for strings, “Dark with Excessive Bright,” heard Wednesday in its U.S. premiere, feels old. Guest violinist Peter Herresthal provided adroit contemporary anachronisms atop an orchestral backdrop that sounded Baroque and current at the same time. The ensemble played it well and evenly, but lacked the depth and dynamism that comes from a passionate performance.
Some of Stutzmann’s stated plans for her new job include concentrated work with the chorus and more of a focus on standard and forgotten orchestral fare with a specific shoutout to Baroque music. This doesn’t mean the ASO will suddenly turn away from new music — Stutzmann’s association with Mazzoli continues in December when she brings another work by the composer to Philadelphia in her capacity as that orchestra’s principal guest conductor. But it is curious that the one piece of new music on the program sounded, at times, like something written centuries ago.
The main event Wednesday, Tchaikovsky’s symphony, balanced bombastic highs with gorgeous lows, and Stutzmann emphatically brought out this wide opposition in dynamics and feel. In a quiet section at the opening to the second movement, a rich tangle of sonority grew primordially from the low strings, pulled out slowly by Stutzmann’s flowing hands. Though all too brief, this was the most heart-stopping moment of the night, a scene-setting device so profound and wonderfully played that this first impression masked minor performance issues later in the movement. Elsewhere in the symphony, Stutzmann reveled in soaring, thunderous melodies, spreading her arms wide and letting the orchestral thunder crash into her. At times, her conducting moved away from showing strict beats and seemed to become more focused on conveying emotion, showing the musicians how to feel the music.
The ASO’s search committee had a daunting task. How do you replace a music director who has made the city his home, and the ensemble his own, for more than 20 years? Stutzmann will have to ease into her new role. She still has two other significant positions, and for at least her first season as ASO music director, she will be commuting to Atlanta from her home in Europe. It’s easy to pin this season as an inflection point — tiptoeing back into live performances with a number of new faces in the ensemble — and feel that significant change is on the horizon. But instead of a swift shift, simple stability after years of wondering what’s next for the orchestra is more likely. Change, where its needed, will come incrementally. The announcement of a new music director is just the beginning.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Oct. 13. Additional performance on Oct. 14. $23-$99. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, aso.org.