Instead of taking yet another curtain call after his riveting performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Thursday night with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, guest pianist Kirill Gerstein briskly walked to the piano, a new piece of music in his hands. But this time, he was the one with a special guest.
Conductor Robert Spano settled in beside Gerstein at the piano, and the duo launched into an encore from Rachmaninov’s “Six Pieces for Four Hands.” Symphony Hall, which can feel cavernous, turned intimate. The two performed the upbeat, vertiginous waltz, side by side, in front of a sea of orchestra musicians who watched with rapt attention. It was an unexpected, and welcome, twist to a superb evening of music.
Of course, Spano has previously spotlighted his piano chops on the ASO stage. The conductor teamed up with cellist Christopher Rex and violinist David Coucheron for an all-ASO performance of Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto in 2013 (musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will perform the work with the ASO in March), and he has performed four-hand pieces with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles.
The fun, effervescent feel of the duet contrasted with Gerstein’s headlining performance of the Rachmaninov concerto. Gerstein, a frequent Atlanta visitor — he most recently appeared in recital at Spivey Hall at Clayton State University in January, and he performed with the Runnicles-led ASO in 2017 — filled the introductory solo chords of the Rachmaninov with restrained beauty edged by disquiet. The strings entered in response, with a deep, stunning tone. There couldn’t have been a more pleasantly musical start to a season.
Gerstein plays without flourish or embellishment, his fingers confidently winding through complicated barrages of notes with precision. While his technique is crisp and flawless, the notes are filled with a complex emotional depth. He isn’t simply playing what’s on the page; each note interprets the feeling and sentiment of the music.
The ASO last performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 at the beginning of the 2015 season, when it was paired in concert with a piece of 21st-century music to provide stability for the audience. Thursday night, the Fifth Symphony functioned as an enabler, underscoring the Romantic lushness of the evening.
The somewhat sinister beginning of the Tchaikovsky, with dark-hued clarinets egged on by low strings, made way for a light dance that included a complement of woodwinds, one of the ASO’s strongest sections. Soon, enough fire and brimstone emerged from the trumpets and pounding timpani to leave an edge of unease and disquiet. These sections of turbulence and confusion were brought to the fore, and Spano made sure the orchestra held nothing back.
After a long summer off, and in the midst of an endless spate of heat that makes September feel like July, the symphony is finally back in business. Dusting off symphonic hits is a time-tested way of beginning a new season. But for all the familiarity, it’s still oddly thrilling to see Spano start the season with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” quarter-turned to the audience, conducting in broad strokes above his head as he sings along with the crowd.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Sept. 20. Additional performances at 8 p.m. Sept. 22 and 3 p.m. Sept. 23. $33-$109. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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In an episode from last spring, listen to Robert Spano talk about his career with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with AJC features reporter Bo Emerson. It is a revealing interview with the music director, whose career has spanned more than three decades.
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