- Jon Ross For the AJC
It was Christmas Day 1989, and the 71-year-old American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein had flown to Berlin at a moment’s notice to help celebrate the collapse of the Berlin Wall. That night, Bernstein led a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with a multicultural orchestra and chorus that featured players from the former East and West Berlin ensembles. It was a revelatory night, with two factions united by Beethoven.
To celebrate this musical togetherness, and the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is devoting the next two seasons to a prolonged exploration of the two titans of music that came together during that celebratory concert.
“(That night) ties the two composers indelibly together in their philosophical feeling across the centuries,” said Evans Mirageas, vice president of artistic planning for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
Dubbed “LB/LB,” Mirageas, ASO music director Robert Spano and the rest of the symphony staff have programmed a season full of Beethoven and Bernstein works, allowing Atlanta audiences a thorough examination of the two great composers. Not every concert in the symphony’s 2017-2018 season, which begins Sept. 21, features an LB work, but the majority of the programs either feature one of the composers or highlight works they championed.
Next season, the Beethoven programming will include six of his nine symphonies, four piano concertos, a violin concerto and the “Missa Solemnis.” During the next two seasons, pianist Jonathan Biss will appear in solo settings on Wednesday nights to perform the entire cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas. In 2018, he will appear in three concerts, performing a total of 15 works.
For Mirageas, the piano sonatas get to the heart of Beethoven as a composer, and he said the opportunity to program a complete cycle was something he couldn’t pass up.
“The 32 piano sonatas are a psychological biography of his development as a composer,” he said, adding that the entire cycle has never been performed in Atlanta by a single pianist.
The orchestra will also perform six Bernstein works, including the composer’s first two symphonies. The jewel of the season, though, is a staged performance of Bernstein’s “Candide” (May 9-20, 2018), which will be directed by Susan Booth, artistic director of the Alliance Theatre.
“It’s going to be ‘Candide’ as though you would see it in the theater with one exception — the orchestra’s on stage,” Mirageas said. “They become protagonists in this.”
Spano is dedicated to highlighting new composers and modern classical works every season, Mirageas said. This is accomplished through the inclusion of Atlanta School of Composers members, a loose-knit faction of living composers.
This year, Spano programmed a number of works by ASO bassist Michael Kurth, a recent addition to the school. On opening weekend, the symphony will perform Kurth’s “A Thousand Words” and will play additional Kurth compositions throughout the season, culminating in a brand-new commission. The symphony will also record a disc of his compositions next year.
“It gives us real pride to have a superb composer who also happens to be a member of the orchestra,” Mirageas said.
A few highlights of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra 2017-2018 season:
The opening weekend of the new season features guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The symphony has also programmed the opening chapter of the two-season-long celebration of Beethoven and Bernstein — the American composer’s Symphony No. 2 — and Michael Kurth’s “A Thousand Words.”
With performances on an unusual Saturday-Tuesday timeline, this concert reading of Verdi’s penultimate opera will feature Russell Thomas, who will sing the role for the very first time. Mirageas said singing the tenor role is a “Mount Everest, no matter who you are.”
While the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus last performed this monumental Beethoven work in January 2016, Mirageas said it was important to program the mass during the opening season of the Beethoven celebration because it’s such an important part of the canon.
Guest conductor Peter Oundjian, a near-perennial Atlanta presence, will lead the orchestra in two monumental works at the heart of the LB/LB celebration. The orchestra will pair Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with the complete ballet score to “Fancy Free” by Bernstein.
Last performed in Atlanta in 2009, the Mozart Requiem performed by the full complement of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is sure to be something to behold.
Starting next season, pianist Jonathan Biss will perform the complete Beethoven piano sonatas in a series of intimate, onstage recitals in Symphony Hall. Tickets are limited to 200. Mirageas said no celebration of Beethoven is complete without the sonatas, which are the true “litmus test” of his compositional genius.