ASO’s “All Italian” Concert is heavy on showmanship

Updated May 15, 2015
  • By James L. Paulk
  • For the AJC

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday performance might not have been as “all Italian” as billed — with a Russian violinist and composers from France, Germany and Italy — but it was one of those quirky concerts that make going to hear ASO an adventure.

When Sergei Krylov performed here in 2011 as a total unknown, he got a rock-star reception with two encores and a review that touted him as the next big thing. If it hasn’t quite worked out that way — Atlanta seems to be his only U. S. destination this year and it appears he’s never played in New York — he’s managed to balance some touring, almost entirely in Europe, with chamber work and conducting a small Lithuanian orchestra. But Atlanta still loves him. And though gauging the ubiquitous standing ovations here can be tricky, this one did seem a bit louder and longer than usual.

This could be because Krylov played Paganini’s Fifth Violin Concerto, a pyrotechnic showpiece almost as wild and flashy as “the Paganini,” the composer’s more famous Concerto No. 1. Like the First, the Fifth seems to exist mainly to show off technique. It does, however, contain music, and there needs to be some sense of balance between bravura display and musicianship. This was a performance that seemed more focused on the former.

Krylov has no shortage of “fire in the belly.” He has a muscular technique. His playing had a spontaneous feel. He has a dark tone and can produce a quavering Gypsy sound. It was an exciting performance. There is no doubt of his virtuosity. But even Paganini must be approached with some deference to the melodies in the piece, a quality missing here.

For an encore, we got yet more Paganini, his Caprice No. 24, here played as an over-the-top circus act, a steroid version of what we’d just heard in the concerto. But this one was such a riotous, unrestrained example of this sort of display that it worked on its own terms, winning over pretty much everyone.

Roberto Abbado, guest conductor, is an Atlanta favorite and a regular here. Trim and dignified, he seems an unlikely partner for the rumpled Krylov, but they paired together nicely with Krylov in a sort of dance marred only by occasional intonation issues from soloist and orchestra.

If Paganini is the most Italian of composers, Berlioz is solidly in the French camp. But his “Roman Carnival” overture is a work of such warmth and energy that it made a fine concert opener, especially with Abbado’s lightning tempi. A man behind me commented: “Well that was a spirited piece.”

German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his Fourth Symphony, nicknamed the “Italian Symphony,” as a sort of travel memoir from a ten month Italian visit. And while little of the music sounds especially Italian, the popular work is 30 minutes of pure joy and exciting contrasts. Abbado’s reading was exemplary, with an especially energetic finale.

Luciano Berio was a fine, tough modernist composer. That isn’t apparent in the short piece he based on the “Ritirata” from Boccherini’s chamber work, “Musica notturna della strade di Madrid.” A most “un-Berio” work, it preceded the Mendelssohn and added a nice depiction of soldiers returning to their barracks in Madrid. And despite the setting, this music was clearly Italian.