Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony should be fresh in the collective memory of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra patrons. Paired with the premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 2 in November 2015, ASO Music Director Robert Spano again looked to the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 for that season’s closing concert, in June 2016, as a last-minute replacement for a bedridden guest performer.
During the current two-season celebration of Beethoven and Bernstein, there was no way around another reading of the Seventh — the German master’s symphony had to be programmed eventually. On Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, guest conductor Peter Oundjian and the ASO were able to mold a passionate performance of the symphony that felt more energized than the most recent attempts. From the sprightly, pastoral theme in the first movement (just imagine skipping down a cobbled country lane), played with a light staccato, to the whirlwind of sound that closes the composition, Oundjian played up dynamic contrasts for dramatic effect.
In the second movement, Oundjian’s careful attention to dynamics helped the ensemble produce an enthralling eight minutes of music. Starting with a melancholic theme in the low strings, played at no more than a stage whisper, Oundjian and the ensemble slowly brought up the volume as more instrumental voices entered the piece. Soon, the entire ensemble sang out the lachrymose theme with controlled grace.
The ASO opened Thursday’s performance with a short selection from the Leonard Bernstein ballet “Fancy Free,” a half-hour piece of music that captures the sounds of World War II-era New York. For Bernstein, this meant intense rhythmic combinations, echoes of swing jazz and lots of New York City noise. There’s a joy to the music, and as it is the score to a ballet, movement flows through the piece. (“Fancy Free” was later repurposed for “On the Town,” the 1944 Bernstein musical.) The night’s seven-minute introduction to the world of “Fancy Free” crammed a lot of music into a small package. The three dance variations performed by the ASO developed into a bright, rousing cacophony of jazz mixed with the aural equivalent of bustling city life.
The blink-and-it’s-over performance created a breathless energy; after it ended, it was as if jaunty, swing eighth notes still echoed throughout the hall. The ASO’s lively performance begged for a chance to stretch into the larger work.
Between “Fancy Free” and the sprawling Beethoven, Concertmaster David Coucheron took the stage to wrestle with the vertiginous swirls of melody that make up the majority of Camille Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto No. 3. The concerto requires an exquisite technical ability, but Coucheron made the lightning-quick passages of notes sound exquisitely musical. Through leaps and bounds, double-stops and other idiomatic violin tricks, Coucheron maintained a bright, clarion tone that was filled with a deep resonance.
Though all eyes were on Coucheron, who looked at ease as he traversed the composition’s many challenging passages, the performance wouldn’t have been as rewarding without the strong support of the ASO. Under Oundjian’s baton, the ensemble mimicked Coucheron’s light playing style, driving the music forward by nimbly moving through the sometimes dense accompaniment.
Oundjian last appeared in front of the symphony almost exactly one year ago, conducting Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra with the same passion and fire as the Beethoven. In recent years, the conductor has been traveling down to Atlanta about once a season. He’s more than welcome any time.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Peter Oundjian
8 p.m. Jan. 11. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Jan. 13. $52-$107. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.
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