The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra showcased a smaller, more compact version of its normally sprawling ensemble on Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, a concert that was at once traditional and avant garde in equal measure. In its traditional aspect, the evening’s set consisted entirely of works by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Fredric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi. On the avant garde side, it was a fascinating, multi-layered study in compositional parallels between three composers. On the side of the audience, it was an enthusiastic triumph.

The program repeats Saturday.

It is certainly a treat to settle in for something as reliable and familiar as Bach, especially when the 2022-23 season has been one typified by the new and the experimental. The first third of the evening saw performances of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, sinfonia from cantata 42 and 12, and finally Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. The rapid fire succession of these short pieces made for an all around joyous set of vignettes.

Music Director Nathalie Stutzmann, now in the latter half of her debut season, dominated the stage as always. But the intimacy of a smaller ensemble seemed to awaken something altogether fascinating in her conducting style: bereft of the riser that normally elevates her above the ensemble, she instead stood on equal footing with the players. That afforded her the opportunity to convey the guidance of the conductor on strikingly personal terms. 

Nathalie Stutzmann
The concert hinted that Atlanta audiences have only scratched the surface of what Stutzmann has to offer.

She moved in close proximity with the players, often abandoning the podium altogether to meet the gaze of specific musicians only inches away. There was a whole new physical vocabulary on display as Stutzmann communicated as much with her eyes as her hands. 

It is a testament to her range that in all the captivating performances she has delivered, we still feel as though we have only excavated the most external layers of all that Stutzmann has to offer.

The first segment of the evening concluded with a polite instrumental dialogue between violins carried out by concertmaster David Coucheron and his immediate counterpart, Justin Bruns. The interplay was intoxicating but also revelatory — while Coucheron is a mainstay on the Atlanta chamber ensemble circuit, he seldom interacts in this way on stage with his ASO colleagues. The result was a rare glimpse into the interplay between performers that are more often geared toward the needs of a larger whole.

The warmly received duet established the guidelines for the evening’s subsequent conceptual continuity. The second third of the evening (called “Friends” in the program) was a musical dialogue between the works of George Fredric Handel and Antonia Vivaldi. Despite the printed program’s historical notes only being able to point to the high likelihood that Handel and Vivaldi would have met at some point, the pairing nevertheless felt natural and complementary. 

Opening with Handel’s “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon and continuing with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Strings in G Minor, the segment captured the notable degree of continuity between the composers to such a degree that the segment taken as a whole felt like a single unbroken work by the same composer. Such continuity is understandable — a defining point in Handel’s music development was his education in Italy and his intense study of Italian musical stylings.

Nathalie Stutzmann
Stutzmann and the four featured ASO violinists receive an ovation.

The second segment concluded with a violin quartet, this time with Bruns and Coucheron joined by Jun-Ching Lin and Anastasia Agaopva. Casting four of the same featured instruments to play individual parts in tandem is a gutsy move for any composer — especially when that instrument is a notoriously shrill upper register piece such as the violin — but in Vivaldi’s hands it works.

The third segment saw a return to Bach and with it a stellar flute solo by Christina Smith, but duets were the order of the evening. Throughout the concert, different pairs of players would pop up for lighthearted exchanges and it was clear why the concept of friendship had been selected as the evening’s conceptual focal point. It was a sort of performance art piece, with the inner workings of the orchestra articulating the subtle facets of friendship that make human connection such a deeply enriching thing.

The evening was a remarkable success. While ASO performances are generally well attended, this one played to a notably packed house and one that gave multiple standing ovations. Listening to the enthusiastic conversations that transpired as the crowd departed the hall, it was obvious that another friendship that had been celebrated: that of the ensemble and its audience.


Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.

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