During the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations,” cellist Johannes Moser decided to have a little fun. With an exaggerated, almost cartoonish flourish, Moser placed an exclamation point on a dazzling run of notes, ending the musical passage with a flick of his wrist. Emanating fake pomposity, he then crossed his long arms atop his cello and mugged at the audience.
This was par for the course during Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. Moser, who appeared as a guest artist alongside guest conductor Jun Markl, packed his spellbinding performance of this bastion of solo cello literature with a studied insouciance. Under Markl’s baton, Moser showed he cares as much about creating an enjoyable performance as he does about playing unforgettable music. In this way, Moser took the approach of an opera singer. During a courtly bit of music, he straightened his back and lifted his chin, affecting a royal air, and in more joyous passages, he bounced around in his chair, throwing puckish glances to Markl and concertmaster David Coucheron.
When Moser played his cello, it had the common, quasi-astringent sound of tightly wound strings, but this edge was softened by a rich, sonorous depth. These characteristics extended to the upper high notes — Moser made routine use of harmonics to extend the instrument’s normal range — and spanned all the way to the depths of the instrument. Moser’s playing was profound when his fingers skipped around the fingerboard at a quick clip, but his most magical musicianship occurred at slower tempos and softer dynamics.
The concert opened with Richard Strauss’ “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” a charming suite of programmatic music that serves as a summary of a Moliere play by the same name. The piece makes use of a much smaller orchestra and a number of solo parts, giving unfamiliar audience members a quick overview of the ASO’s strengths. The first movement started with a vertiginous piano melody, echoed by the strings, which had pianist Peter Marshall floating up and down the keyboard, producing a bubbly stream of notes.
Later in the composition, solos by Coucheron, clarinetist Laura Ardan and others showcased individual talents. The Strauss work also highlighted the challenges of playing in a pared-down orchestra; despite Markl’s exuberant conducting, a couple of the slower movements lacked energy and seemed unfocused.
Markl’s upbeat demeanor paired well with Moser’s whimsical approach. The conductor worked well with the orchestra as a partner in music making — egging the violins on during forte passages, nearly sashaying through the air to demonstrate how he wanted a particular passage played.
Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, which ended the program, packed passionate playing of sublime music into a small package. Clocking in at about half an hour, the four-movement work was almost too brief, but on a night when Moser’s performance threatened to outshine everything else on the program, this parting offering from the entire ensemble served as a reminder of the ASO’s extraordinary capabilities.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Jun Markl and Johannes Moser
8 p.m. Feb. 2. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Feb. 4. $20-$99. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.