CLASSICAL MUSIC

A memorable year despite ASO’s contract delay

By Andrew Alexander For the AJC

For classical music lovers, 2014 will not be remembered as an easy year. A months-long lockout, cancelled concerts and a series of unproductive negotiations between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s administration and musicians made for a dreary fall of deafening silence, especially frightening because there were weeks on end when it seemed there was no resolution in sight. In spite of the rough times, it was nonetheless a strong year for classical music in the city, featuring benchmark performances of great works new and old. Below are some of our picks for 2014 highlights.

ASO opening night

The ASO’s much-delayed opening night in November was greeted with heartfelt ovations as the full orchestra and chorus gathered to perform, appropriately enough, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Some listeners noted that the stress of the lockout and the lack of rehearsal had taken their toll, making for a somewhat shaky start. Still, after the long months of an empty symphony hall, it was an undeniably electric evening, and truly, the Götterfunken has seldom sounded schöner. When the band finally struck up again, it was unquestionably one of the sweetest sounds of the year.

‘Cloth’

Atlantans may have grown accustomed to seeing ASO Music Director Robert Spano at the podium in Symphony Hall, and they may even have become used to occasionally spotting him at his favorite haunts around town, but they’d certainly never seen him seated at the piano in a black kilt and surrounded by beautiful young dancers. But that’s precisely how audiences encountered Spano as he performed his original composition for “cloth,” a dance performance created in collaboration with choreographer Lauri Stallings at the Goat Farm Arts Center in September. Spa-no’s multilayered, contemplative piece was achingly lovely, perfectly suited to the dream-like, undulating movement of the dancers. It was a daring artistic move that richly rewarded those who were lucky enough to see and hear the performance.

ASO’s ‘Rite of Spring,’ ‘La Valse’

As part of an unusual program at Symphony Hall, Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles performed together at two pianos arranged side by side playing seldom heard transcriptions of two famous orchestral works: Ravel’s “La Valse” and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The two musicians were funny, accessible and charming as they spoke to the audience about the pieces, but it was ultimately their stark limning of Stravinsky’s strange, violent passages that made the evening so memorable. It was a vivid reminder that the ASO has two superstars at the helm.

The Atlanta Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’

The Atlanta Opera created a shimmering and engagingly cinematic production of Giacomo Puccini’s classic love story with its season opener “Mada-ma Butterfly” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in November, indicating a fresh direction for the company under new artistic director Tomer Zvulun. Performed by a strong cast led by soprano Dina Kuznetsova and tenor Adam Diegel, the production featured the innovation of enormous film projections of Nagasaki harbor and blossoming cherry trees that served to add to the drama without overwhelming it.

Sonic Generator

Georgia Tech’s contemporary chamber ensemble gave a knockout concert at the historic warehouse-like Erikson Clock building in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood. As rain fell outside, the group performed John Zorn’s 2012 work “The Tempest” along with a world premiere from renowned composer Daniel Wohl. Musician Tim Whitehead also gave composer and Georgia Tech professor Jason Freeman’s “Lullaby for Growing Old” its world premiere on solo toy piano, a touching and slightly eerie performance.

ASO’s ‘Aida’

The ASO and Chorus rounded out its 2013-14 season with a complete four-act concert performance of Verdi’s “Aida.” The chorus sounded spectacular, and soprano Latonia Moore nailed the title role of Aida. But the stripped-down concert setting primarily served to bring the emphasis back to the music and the orchestra. The musicians played with fiery drama, making for a glamorous season ending and a finale that will be hard to beat in future years.