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.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

German Botello, a Mexican-American, finds a welcoming place at GSU
German Botello, a Mexican-American, finds a welcoming place at GSU

German Botello was born at Grady Memorial Hospital to two Mexican immigrants. He was raised speaking both English and Spanish (but mostly Spanish) at home. Now a senior at Georgia State University, he is the first in his family to attend a four-year university, and he’s felt the pressure to make the case that studying in college makes sense....
Christie Thuy Pham, a Vietnamese-American, aims to blend two cultures
Christie Thuy Pham, a Vietnamese-American, aims to blend two cultures

Christie Thuy Pham is a first-generation Vietnamese-American and senior at Georgia State University. She grew up as a first-generation American in rural Morrow, and Georgia was challenging because she was raised in an American setting, but her family life was firmly rooted in traditional Vietnamese culture. She has struggled seeing her American friends...
An Indian-American scholar talks about music, school, stereotypes
An Indian-American scholar talks about music, school, stereotypes

We started our New Americans series Sunday with a Personal Journey about Ryan Koirala, a Bhutanese refugee who recently became a Clarkston police officer. We continue the series this week with stories about German Botello, who was born at Grady Memorial Hospital to two Mexican immigrants, and Christie Thuy Pham, a Vietnamese-American and senior at...
3.1 million Georgians expected to travel this holiday season
3.1 million Georgians expected to travel this holiday season
This year, more than 107 million American will travel during the holiday period extending from Sat., Dec. 23 through Mon., Jan 1, according to data from AAA.  The number marks the highest year-end travel volume on record -- an increase of 3.1 percent compared to last year.  Locally, 3.1 million Georgians will travel 50 miles...
Atlanta baker ‘disappointed’ after ABC pulls ‘Great American Baking Show’ over judge’s alleged improprieties
Atlanta baker ‘disappointed’ after ABC pulls ‘Great American Baking Show’ over judge’s alleged improprieties

Johnny Iuzzini is a judge on “The Great American Baking Show.” Season 3 debuted last week but no more episodes will air. (ABC/Mark Bourdillion) JOHNNY IUZZINI Posted Thursday December 14, 2017 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog ABC’s “The Great American...
More Stories