It’s opening night at the new Atlanta Symphony Orchestra! The start of the 78th season, with a new music director, epic repertoire, a new artistic agenda! Champagne, ball gowns and tuxedos, long-winded speeches — no one knows how to party like the ATL!
Except that all starts in two weeks. Nathalie Stutzmann takes the podium for the first time as the ASO’s fifth music director, highlighted by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, on October 14.
But Thursday in Symphony Hall, officially Week One of Season 78, the concert was a more modest affair — intentionally mild, perhaps, to not spoil the season’s first big glittery event.
Conductor Peter Oundjian, a regular ASO guest, led a very Atlanta-like program, including a Mozart piano concerto with a favorite soloist, a recent work by a young composer and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.
The highlight of the evening, an original new voice, sat in the middle. Oundjian brought with him Joel Thompson’s To Awaken the Sleeper, a piece that the conductor and his Colorado Music Festival commissioned in 2020 during an inflamed year of societal unrest.
The composer is local. Raised in Gwinnett County, Thompson is an Emory University graduate who recently completed his composition doctorate at Yale. He’s moving fast, with major commissions from the Houston Grand Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and more. His most talked-about work is Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, from 2014, where each movement is linked to a Black victim of police and vigilante violence, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The piece ends with the words “I can’t breathe.” By musical structure and title, he likens the murdered men to Christ on the cross.
In To Awaken the Sleeper, for orchestra and narrator, Thompson was inspired by “the insightful and prophetic words” of James Baldwin, and he quotes from three of the author’s writings, constructing a seamless narration on justice, democracy, tyranny and an oppressive “vocabulary which now cannot bear the weight of reality.”
At the start, the music explodes in kaleidoscopic cacophony. A listener’s ear jumps all around the stage manically, grasping for a phrase or a hook to hang on to. Soon what might be an Ivesian marching-band tune appears and fades somewhere in a thicket. It gets loud. It dissolves into sweeping blocks of sound. The orchestral colors are often dazzling. As narrator, Thompson — appearing poised and relaxed in a crisp brown suit — enters with the words “So be it! We cannot awaken the sleeper, and God knows we have tried . . .”
Baldwin’s stylish prose, every line of it, could be reprinted to describe the key moments in Thompson’s work. The composer doesn’t brush past any of it, instead having the orchestra offer a running commentary on the text. In devastating moments, he knows to thin out the orchestral scoring and let the words do the talking: “Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any Black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.”
Moments later, he evokes the fife and drum to surround Revolutionary War language: “When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt.”
When “principles on which a new world will be built” take us toward resolution, Thompson puts a halo of strings around it, perhaps borrowing from earthy English string serenades. Yet there’s nothing cliched in his writing, no received musical wisdom. Thompson has his own story to tell.
Thompson’s music is alive and inquisitive, in constant dialogue with itself and the text. He pays close attention to compositional craft, without wasted effort. There’s still a trace of the student in his writing — an overuse of cymbals rolled by soft mallets, like a slow-motion metallic splash, for example — but so much originality and lucid energy and stylistic confidence. He’s an important voice to follow. The ASO, obviously, must commission him immediately.
As befits opening night, first up was “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The brass section went mostly their individual ways, so it sounded like an Oktoberfest performance by the world’s most luxurious German oom-pah-pah band.
Following the anthem, they started the show with a smallish, Classical-era ensemble on stage and the estimable Emanuel Ax at the keyboard for Mozart’s lovely, undervalued Piano Concerto No. 18. (Even the choice of concerto signaled this wouldn’t be an evening of fireworks.)
A gray-haired teddy bear of a man, Ax is, as ever, pure grace and elegance. On a good night, there’s almost no one else you’d rather hear in this repertoire. For the concerto’s march-like introduction, Oundjian had the strings play beautifully and very quietly — a good sign that the conductor had his musicians under full control. Ax entered, his phrases so liquid, his touch gentle and lyrical yet full of depth. There were even hints of operatic Mozart, wonderfully, as if the pianist were a Marriage of Figaro character and the ASO were accompanying in the pit. Musically, it rings true.
They couldn’t quite sustain that approach. The slow middle movement was buttery warm if low in energy. In the finale, they found moments of intensity and seemed to be gradually building rapport. But throughout the concerto, the whole was never greater than the sum of its many delicate and lovely parts. (Saturday’s repeat performance should be notably improved.)
It’s crazy, but since the pandemic, there have been no encores at ASO concerts — despite the evident approval from the audience and despite the ease of applauding for a few more seconds to yield one more curtain call, bringing back the soloist who would humbly give thanks . . . and then sit down to offer a small gift to appreciative listeners. Nope, no more. Encores seem yet another beloved activity lost to Covid.
After intermission, Oundjian closed the evening with the Symphonic Dances by Sergei Rachmaninoff, his very last work, composed in 1940. Moody, brilliant, pessimistic, both nostalgic and modern, the Symphonic Dances aren’t quite dance music, even as each of the three movements have a rhythmic, dance-like theme. The emotions are kept at arm’s length.
In Atlanta, we’d been spoiled by former music director Robert Spano’s unusually powerful conception of this turbulent work and, to me, he seemed to have conducted it as memorably as anything in his repertoire. He made it sound better than it probably is. Spano’s interpretation — and here I grossly oversimplify — was vertical: You were hearing the music up and down the full score, in all its harmonic complexity and connectivity. Inner voices were sometimes brought to the fore, to richly satisfying effect. It all sounded very three-dimensional, bristling with energy.
Oundjian, more traditionally, took a rather horizontal approach — a subtle but real distinction — letting the long singing melodies unspool, if often seemingly without inner support. It sounded more Romantic and a little kitschy, lacking a firm point of view — a grand statement that fell short of its own ambition.
Nevertheless, To Awaken the Sleeper, by a major new Atlanta composer, should not be missed. The concert repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.