Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was built around the visit of French mega-star pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who brought along one of the more intriguing new works to arrive in the last few years. “Piano Concerto No. 3: The Mysteries of Light,” by Scottish composer James MacMillan, is a series of meditations on the Rosary.
“Mysteries” may hold special appeal for Roman Catholics. The rest of us could have used a bit more guidance than the oddly truncated program notes on offer. But it seems that the five sections were based on the “Luminous Mysteries” introduced by Pope John Paul II in 2002, and each deals with prominent events in the life of Christ (i.e. “Miracle in Canaan’).
Some of these recall Olivier Messiaen’s ruminative mystical works, but MacMillan has storms of ecstasy around every corner, with inventive combinations. The transformations in the piece are as unpredictable as they are satisfying.
The 25 minute work isn’t really a concerto, in the sense that it isn’t a dialogue between soloist and orchestra. As the composer’s brief notes indicate, it is structured more like a tone poem for orchestra, but with a virtuosic piano component. And virtuosic is the key. Even Thibaudet, one of the world’s greatest musicians, relied on a score despite having played the piece numerous times.
In fact, no one else has yet played “Mysteries.” It was written for him, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and premiered in 2011. He has since become a one person PR firm for the piece, requesting to play it when he performs.
Thibaudet’s playing was pure poetry, matched brilliantly by the orchestra, whose role was equally demanding, led deftly by ASO Music Director Robert Spano. Thibaudet is a bit of a showman, sometimes veering towards caricature with his eccentric outfits and contortions. There is a tradition for this, going back to Franz Liszt and to Erik Satie, a fellow Frenchman whose works Thibaudet has championed.
Atlanta seemed not to know quite what to make of “Mysteries.” Even the de rigueur standing ovation seemed tepid, with a fair amount of abstention.
The MacMillan work was bookended by Mozart. His overture for “The Magic Flute” opened the concert, which ended with his Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter.” But neither seemed quite right. Perhaps the orchestra is still adjusting back to Spano, who hasn’t conducted in Symphony Hall since April 5th.
The “Magic Flute” overture was satisfying but marred by intonation issues. The “Jupiter” is usually one of the world’s most indestructible works, and its intrinsic beauty came through here. But it unfolded slowly, and the textures seemed dense, with dark undertones. Judging from his beaming expressions, we were getting just the sound Spano wanted. This might have been less of a problem had the work not followed the transparent sound world of MacMillan’s “Mysteries.” And though there seems to be a tradition of using “Jupiter” to close concerts, perhaps “Mysteries” is one of those works that are best saved for last.
Additional performances 8 p.m. June 1 and 3 p.m. June 2. $23-$67. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-5000.