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Review: ASO captivates with 18th-century tunes

It’s the definition of an earworm. The four-bar phrase that opens “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” written by Mozart in 1787, combines a simple, hummable melody with a unique staying power. Those introductory bars are omnipresent in popular culture and have come to define classical style.

On Thursday, a winnowed-down, chamber-ensemble version of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Nicholas McGegan, took a 230-year-old tune that is embedded in the fabric of popular culture and made it sound startlingly relevant.

McGegan, who is noted for his expertise in 18th-century music, conducted about two dozen strings in a completely gorgeous, utterly placid recitation of the Mozart composition. The violins — headed by assistant concertmaster Jun-Ching Lin,who has been an orchestra staple for more than three decades — guided a performance marked by crisp trills, delicate phrasing and rich ensemble blending. The crystalline performance sounded exactly as it should — precisely as it’s been performed by the best orchestras in the world many, many times before. But there was an element of passion, a driving undercurrent, in the ASO’s presentation of the courtly, reserved music. McGegan and the ensemble translated this well-trod Mozart into something that was a little different.

RELATED: ASO to celebrate Beethoven, Bernstein over next two seasons

Aside from being a masterful conductor, McGegan is a joy to watch. He conducts with his entire body. Instead of keeping the beat with a baton, the conductor weaves both hands through the air, sometimes balling them into fists and punching the air to demonstrate musical attacks. To keep time, he swings his arms back and forth at a metered pace, as if he were a skier navigating a moderate slope.

In a departure from the ubiquity of the Mozart, McGegan and a slightly more robust ensemble presented a charming and completely captivating suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera, “Les Indes Galantes.” After a short speech during which he called the composer’s music “wacko” and “amazingly good fun,” McGegan led a poised, lively group that shone the spotlight on a number of woodwind musicians. In the first few bite-size selections, the bassoonists played arching, light phrases that fluttered above the orchestra. Later, in the selection “Air Pour Zephire,” Lin, flutist Todd Skitch and cellist Karen Freer banded together in a serene unaccompanied trio.

The only drawback to the Rameau? An environmental disruption. An errant alarm, which echoed throughout Symphony Hall, paused the music-making at a natural break between selections. After the commotion subsided, McGegan simply brushed away the temporary hullabaloo and continued on, unperturbed.

While the entire night presented courtly, regimented music that was somewhat unemotional, Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 allowed the musicians to stretch out a bit. After a royal, thundering introduction, the piece drove toward the euphoric, revelatory final movement.

For an ensemble that brings new works and 20th-century music to Atlanta audiences with great frequency, an evening of pure classical works seemed incongruous with the ASO’s mission. But while this ensemble is at its best when presenting these newer works under the baton of music director Robert Spano, it is encouraging to hear older music presented so beautifully.

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