With his back toward the audience and his attention fixed on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, violinist Joseph Swensen sawed his bow pointedly during tricky musical passages of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.
During Thursday night’s performance at Atlanta Symphony Hall, there seemed to be two conductors on stage. Assistant conductor Joseph Young, conducting his first classical series of the season, guided an energetic orchestra through the sublime, lyrical concerto. But Swensen also looked to be keeping an eye on the musicians. While his comportment was sometimes fleeting and never approached Miles Davis levels of back-to-the-audience contempt, at times it felt as if the audience was looking in on a rehearsal or an intimate musical conversation.
In a way, this may have elevated the concert. Swensen seemed to take pride at watching the orchestra perform; he beamed at the musicians as they played through their sometimes-thorny accompaniment. When Swensen did turn to the audience, as in the blistering third movement of the concerto, he played dizzying musical runs with rapid-fire ease. The concerto seemed perfectly tailored to Swensen’s radiant playing — many of the lyrical melodic runs sit at the low end of the violin, allowing Swensen to highlight his ruddy, pleasantly biting tone.
Young and the orchestra opened the evening with “Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula,” a programmatic, religion-tinged tone poem written in 2011 by James Lee III. The work is a sometimes bombastic reflection on beliefs that mixes dissonance with carefully played interlocking melodic lines to create a pleasant cacophony. Dynamics are of paramount importance to the piece as these walls of sound are abruptly followed by fluffy, cottonlike strings — an overwhelmingly quiet, soft respite from the clamor.
Young brilliantly led the symphony through these changes with a deft hand. There’s a lot to keep track of during the piece — interlocking percussion and harp parts must blend perfectly, agile woodwind players have to perform their musical parts with distinction but also blend into the entire orchestra — and Young proved more than capable of perfectly wielding the expanded orchestra.
The ASO closed the evening with a spellbinding performance of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World.” Young helped the musicians maintain a high energy, adding a propulsive undercurrent to even the quietest musical passages. Young and the symphony will perform the Dvorak symphony for the first Casual Friday concert of the year. The performance is a perfect encapsulation of the current state of the symphony and should convert a few casual symphony fans into full-blown fanatics.