Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Performers: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus,
Robert Spano, Conducting
Repertoire: Fratres (Arvo Part),The Miraculous Mandarin
(Bartok) and Glagolithic Mass (Janacek)
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald Perelman Stage,
Carnegie Hall
Date: October 30, 2010

Back in 1989, when I stayed in New York for the summer, I used to pass by Carnegie Hall and contemplated attending one of its concerts. I never did. Last night, I finally fulfilled a longtime wish to experience a symphonic concert in its main hall. The concert in question was a performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, its 200-strong chorus in tow.

There are three concert venues in Carnegie Hall. The Weill theatre is small and is used for intimate chamber recitals. The Zankel hall is a slightly larger configurable space. The Stern Hall (named after Isaac Stern) is the main, large hall where orchestras show off their mettle. The Carnegie was almost razed to the ground back in the 60’s. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, its main tenant, was going to decamp for Lincoln Center that was being built by the city. No resident orchestra, no income. But for the efforts of a band of New York fans of Carnegie Hall, led by Isaac Stern, Carnegie hall would have been demolished and a condo erected in its stead. Listening to the glorious acoustics of this famed hall, my gratitude knows no bound to Stern and company for preserving this magnificent building.

I will not go into the specifics of the program played by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Suffice it to say that there were three pieces. The first one, a sort of prelude, was the hymn-like piece for strings and percussion by the Estonian composer Arvo Part. This was a study in dynamics, starting from pianissimo to fortissimo, a la Ravel’s Bolero, but slow, church-like and infused with the melancholy of a Baltic winter. Having been to Estonia, specifically Tallinn, I imagined myself in one of the ancient, medieval churches there at the break of dawn, waiting for the light to creep in through the stained-glass windows till it grew brighter and brighter with the approach of morning. I think Robert Spano, the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, chose this piece (instead of the advertised Atmospheres by Varese) to take advantage of the clarity and warmth that the superb acoustics of the hall inevitably confers on an equally superb ensemble. I could even feel and detect the pitch of the softest thud of the bass drum from three stories up on the balcony, where I was. I transferred to a seat with better sightlines after the intermission and this I can say: there is no bad seat in Carnegie Hall. Its acoustics is truly astounding. You are caressed (or blown away) by the sound with equal force whether you’re in the orchestra or in the rafters.

The second piece the ASO performed was Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin”, a symphonic suite derived from the music to a seldom performed ballet with a rather lurid scenario. The storyline of the ballets involves a dancing girl who attracts a mandarin (obviously an oriental) who falls in love with her. He goes after the girl, but thugs get in the way. They rob him, torture him, put a sword into him, hang him, but he doesn’t die, doesn’t even bleed (hence the “Miraculous” title) and just keeps on longing for the girl. Finally, the thugs cut him off from the gallows, the girl expresses her love for him, and the mandarin starts to bleed and die. The shocking tale is reflected in the dissonances that Bartok informs on this suite. Any ordinary orchestra will wilt under the complexities of the composition. The Atlanta Symphony is one of the best orchestras in the USA, and indeed the world, and made mincemeat of the suite, in a muscular fashion. There were equal dollops of brilliant brasses, silken rivers of strings, and since this is Bartok, thumping percussion galore. Listening to this piece on my iPod (the recording by the Toronto Symphony, Paavo Järvi conducting), I found the piece cacophonous. Listening to it performed at Carnegie Hall, with a live orchestra reveling under the extraordinary acoustics of the venue, it was hair-raising, exciting, distressing, sensuous and vital.

After a short intermission period, which I used to change seats (it wasn’t a full house, but still very well attended, considering how commodious Carnegie Hall is), the orchestra with the addition of its famed chorus embarked on the rapturous Glagolithic Mass by the Czech composer, Leo Janacek. This is a setting of the Latin mass translated into a Slavic language called Glagolithic. It is a long piece where orchestra, chorus and even a pipe organ alternate duties. Impressed as I was by the Atlanta symphony, I was even more floored by the size of the all volunteer chorus: 200 all in all, not counting the soloists. Somehow they all fit on the stage. The exciting introduction by the orchestra seemed to me like a motoric repetition and variation on the first four notes of the final section of Beethoven’s Symphony # 9, but there the similarity ended. The choir, which was established by the late Robert Shaw (ever heard of the Robert Shaw chorale?), has gained fame for the richness of its harmony and polish of its performances. The Glagolithic Mass gave them a chance to shine at full cry. Together with the orchestra, their sound was rich and devastating.

My spirit soared to the tremendous sounds of the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus. The gilt moldings on the creamy walls of Carnegie Hall glinted in assent. The New York concert-goers stood up and emitted loud "Bravos!"' I am sure to be back here for another symphonic outing.

On the way out, I noticed a plastic dispenser by the door practically brimming with individually wrapped Ricola mints. Evidently they were there for the taking. No one seemed to be helping himself to them. I scooped up enough mints to supply me for a month. The black, plump lady usher looked at me disapprovingly. I slunk off into the chill night air on busy 57th St. I know I will be back to Carnegie Hall to listen to more glorious sounds. Hopefully, there’ll be more freebies, too. Maybe Swiss chocolates next time?

Only in New York.

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