The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continued its already dynamic and diverse 2022-23 season Thursday with a set that was as celebratory of the classics as it was open to exploring vast realms of uncharted sonic territory. That exploration came in the form of the U.S. premiere of “Adagio (for Wadada Leo Smith),” the haunting new work for saxophone and orchestra from Tyshawn Sorey. The concert marked the return of Stephen Mulligan, who made his mark as the ASO’s associate conductor for two years.
The program repeats Saturday night.
The evening began on a dark and ominous note (one that would define the tone of the concert as a whole) with Carl Maria Von Weber’s overture to “Der Freischütz.” The opening strains were played with a hard textural palette that grated gently against the nerves with a tense poise that seemed to challenge the relaxed sensibilities of the night’s concert goers.
The Atlanta Symphony’s lush, intoxicating and listener friendly string section is one of its long standing hallmarks. To begin with a piece that challenged those expectations from the opening bars was daring indeed.
Weber is like Johannes Brahms in his sinister, brooding style but that angst is tempered by something resembling the adagio stylings of Samuel Barber — that same sense of wistful, reflective melancholy permeates throughout and it is this sentimentality that gives the ASO a window into their crowd pleasing sense of romanticism even in such a harsh piece.
All in all it was a superb opener that afforded the orchestra an opportunity to showcase its range but also served as a bellwether for the challenging work to come.
The evening’s lynchpin was its second piece, “Adagio (For Wanda Lee Smith),” commissioned by the Lucerne Festival and the ASO as part of New Music USA’s “Amplifying Voices” program. The ASO performed Sorey’s “For Roscoe Mitchell” in 2021 and that piece seemed tense to the point of exhaustion. Like so many modern classical works, it hovered in the air with this sense of existential dread but never actually went anywhere.
The new piece is built around the saxophone, an instrument that has never found a popular footing in the symphonic context, and instead found its place in jazz and Sousa marches. As such there is an inevitable aura associated with the instrument — one that is cool, hip and defiant irrespective of the composition at hand.
That aura was on full display in the hands of the evening’s featured soloist, alto saxophonist Timothy McAlllister. He was comfortable standing with one foot in each of the normally disparate worlds of classical refinement and hard bop intimacy.
“Adagio (For Wanda Lee Smith)” returned to the same tense, haunting realms of Sorey’s “Roscoe Mitchell,” but this time it flat out works thanks to a consistently engaging sense of tension and release. That same “hovering” quality is still there but McAllister sold that tense atmosphere with a consistently evolving melody line that functioned as a hopeful, yearning balance point between seemingly errant chordal accompaniment. Voicings that seem impossibly dense became lush and melodious when the saxophone enters.
The story told in the course of “Adagio” is, irrespective of its compositional intent, the tale of a mournful melodic line that struggles to break free of the harmonic despair that surrounds it. The piece reaches ever higher towards a distant realm of joy and light only to be pulled mercilessly back to earth by a dense fog of orchestral accompaniment. Sorey has affected the narration of a tragic tale of hopes and happiness cruelly and majestically destroyed — the symphonic equivalent of a Tennessee Williams play and a true wonder to behold.
The evening’s third and final piece, Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43, put the spotlight on guest conductor Stephen Mulligan, who served as the ASO’s associate conductor from 2017 to 2019. Mulligan had to step in as a last-minute replacement conductor three times in six weeks in 2018, including once during a concert following an intermission. When he took over for an ill guest conductor at a rehearsal, he was greeted by the ASO’s trombone section with the theme from the film Superman.
As guest conductor, Mulligan was efficient and effective. His erudite, earnest manner at the podium saw him neither so constrained as to be impotent in his command of the orchestra, nor so daring as to embody the rock star swagger that makes Nathalie Stuzmann such a welcome presence.
The Sibelius work itself was effective and largely enjoyable, though it wore on well past its welcome. The piece is full of profound moments throughout but even profundity is subject to the law of diminishing returns. His second symphony, no matter how well realized it may be in its individual movements, becomes a sprawling exercise in tedium when taken as a whole.
By the end of the night it was clear that Sorey’s “Adagio” was going to be the most memorable work of the set and a fascinating musical puzzle whose depth and mystique I find myself still contemplating hours after its fearsome conclusion.
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.