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S & H International Concert Review

Knussen, Debussy, Vaughan Williams, Christine Brewer, Soprano, Brett Polegato, Baritone, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Norman Mackenzie, Director of Choruses, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, May 1, 2004 (BH)

Knussen: The Way to Castle Yonder, Potpourri for Orchestra, Op. 21a,from Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1990)
Debussy: Three Nocturnes for Orchestra (1897-99)
Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (1903-09)


If Robert Spano did nothing more than increase public awareness (at least in the United States) of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music, and of this neglected work in particular, he would probably secure a place in the conductors’ pantheon. Last Saturday evening, in one of the most thrilling performances of the New York season, Spano brought all of his considerable talents to bear on A Sea Symphony, that a friend persuasively described as "a cross between Ravel’s Daphnis and the Mahler Eighth." This was Spano’s first Carnegie appearance with the orchestra since his appointment as its music director, and from what I heard, it must be incredibly heartening to Atlanta residents to see such magic taking place in their own back yard.

From the opening bars, with the legendary, disciplined Atlanta chorus singing with a gutsy immediacy, the performance swept through the hall as if propelled on the same gales of wind and water that define the work itself. (Let us pause for a moment of thanks to Robert Shaw, and again for their current director, Norman Mackenzie.) I have not heard these same forces’ award-winning Telarc recording of this piece, but if it is even close to what we heard Friday night, it is no wonder that it earned such praise.

The work itself is a pretty astonishing first symphony – full of assurance beyond its years, with ravishing colors, some imaginative effects, nontraditional structure, and above all, a hefty command of a large orchestra and in this case, an even larger chorus (almost 200 voices). Its texts are by Walt Whitman, grafted from different sources with the common theme of the ocean, and I particularly like the fourth, The Explorers, from Passage to India.

The chorus launched into the opening "Behold, the sea" that had people around me leaning forward in attention, and things only got better. Christine Brewer entered with luscious tone that soared through the densest choral textures, and there are a couple of dangerous peaks that she seemed to navigate completely at ease. Her ardent colleague, Brett Polegato (also on the recording), brought a sensitive, not to mention intelligently managed tone to his part, and his voice blended beautifully with Brewer’s. The orchestra made the most of the ebb and flow that Vaughan Williams summons so adroitly. Especially striking were the trumpets and trombones, reveling in the splendor that Vaughan Williams conjures up to evoke the spray, power and mystery of the ocean, and the woodwinds, whose clear, dreamy warbling enhanced the sensation of being near water flowing everywhere. And in the final movement, the lower strings ended the piece on a heavenly dark plain, the sound gently disappearing into the distance as Spano’s raised hands kept the audience waiting, collective breaths held in virtual silence. Only when his arms fell did the crowd erupt in cheers, bringing out the conductor and the soloists for six ovations.

The two works that preceded this were cannily chosen, with Ravel hovering over the entire evening without actually appearing on the program. The Knussen is fanciful (think of Tombeau de Couperin and you wouldn’t be too far off), and is also chock full of coloristic effects that suit the Maurice Sendak story. The excerpt mined for this suite is light, not to be confused with lightweight, and made a completely original beginning to the evening. Special kudos to the percussionist who was dealt the job of managing the insistent and delightful castanets.

The Debussy was also handled with shimmering finesse. If the orchestra didn’t quite manage the quietest of pianissimos now and then, such as in the opening, no matter – their playing was still of a very high caliber. Spano took tempi slightly flowing, on the andante con moto side, perhaps not as relaxed as I usually like in this work, but still clear, communicative and sensuous. In the final Sirènes, the women of the chorus sounded marvelous, even if overall, compared to the atmospheric wizardry that Spano had conjured up in Nuages and Fêtes, there didn’t seem to be quite enough of that misty Debussy haze from which clouds seem to slowly materialize. But the sheer sound from these artists was glorious; rock-solid intonation and unified, secure attacks were pretty much taken for granted after awhile.

Of late there has been much discussion of new conductors and orchestras’ meshing together: Eschenbach and Philadelphia, Robertson and St. Louis, Welser-Möst and Cleveland, Vänska and Minnesota. Atlanta must be absolutely thrilled to have someone who not only seems to bring out the best in the orchestra, but appears to have a savvy programming sense and the ability to rise to the occasion, artistically, on an evening when it really matters. If Spano decides to present the remaining eight in Vaughan Williams’ symphonic oeuvre I’d be delighted, but whatever his intentions, he seems to have already done much to spotlight at least one underplayed masterpiece that deserves a profoundly higher profile.

Bruce Hodges


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