A Punk-Rock Review of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven’s Piano 4 and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade

Pianist Yefim Bronfman. Photo credited to Dario Acosta
Pianist Yefim Bronfman. Photo credited to Dario Acosta

Those of you who know me know how much I love classical music, but you may not know my dirty secret. I don’t like the symphony as a musical form. Orchestras? Love ’em. But I don’t care for symphonies. If you are not educated enough to understand that “symphony” and “orchestra” are not synonyms, you may not get my point.

I usually prefer chamber music — three, six, twelve musicians playing off of each other, transparent and clean, and most importantly playing short pieces. I don’t have the attention span or the temperament to sit through the massive wall of sound and endless duration of a Mahler or a Brahms symphony. They put me right to sleep.

Yet I was delighted to make what was for me a rare pilgrimage to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, on this one night: May 28, 2015, where there was a big orchestra but nary a symphony for miles around. The program was:

  • Jean Sibelius’ short tone poem The Bard, Opus 64
  • Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra (Yefim Bronfman, piano)
  • Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (concertmaster David Coucheron on the world’s most naked violin solos)

The first half was with a smaller orchestra, as befit the material; a lot of the heavy-hitters wouldn’t take the stage until the second half.

Sibelius’ warm-up act was 8 minutes and it was over. It was a good way to start out. Pastorale and charming to a fault, if that makes any sense. I think I would have liked to have heard it played again, right there in the same concert, so I could get into it.

Then Yefim Bronfman innocently sidled up to the piano, to run down a landmark work in music history, arguably the first truly great piano concerto, where Beethoven demonstrated everything that a concerto could be.

I love concertos. They’re like symphonies but without all the boring stretches. The attention and the interest bounces back and forth between a crowd-pleasing soloist and the orchestra, with the orchestra’s conductor (Robert Spano) playing handball with a hot-shot virtuoso who will not be conducted. The conductor just skillfully keeps that ball in play. Concertos are just the prescription for people with short attention spans like myself. Nothing ever sits in one place for too long. Musical ideas ricochet all around the hall, but the audience never risks losing track of who’s got the ball.

And Yefim Bronfman, who does not in any way carry himself like the internationally-renowned virtuoso that he is, came in like a little lamb and went out like a pride of lions taking down a bull elephant — but gracefully. The audience reaction was just off the chain. They leapt to their feet and clapped and stomped and would not let the guy go back to the green room. Thus we got a piano solo encore, right before intermission, no less, and nobody was trying to sneak out to the lobby. Since this is my self-described punk-rock orchestra review, I’ll go ahead and say it: there was not a dry seat in the house.

The encore, Chopin’s “Sunshine” Etude No. 8 from his Opus 10, fit in well with the Beethoven. Playing lightly and floridly,  Bronfman at the same time ripped up the keyboard like Liszt. Thanks to Atlanta pianist Alex Wasserman for cluing me in as to the identity of this un-announced encore. [Alex Wasserman has a solo piano recital this Sunday night at Peachtree Presbyterian; I’m going to be there.]

The audience got their 20 minutes for a palate-cleanser, and came back for my favorite orchestral piece in the whole world, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

The stage filled up with everybody you know and love in the ASO, and all the fully-qualified subs they could hire. I don’t mean that as a detraction. You’ve got to come out loaded for bear if you’re going to do 1,001 Arabian Nights Rimsky-Korsakov style. And Bronfman just dispatched an elephant with a surgical strike, so for the second half, you’d better bring it, Dr. Spano. (He did.)

The point of the instrumental musical form we know as the tone poem is to dazzle the listener with the sheer evocative power of instrumental music, to stimulate the imagination and wring affekt out of every phrase. I still think that for sheer tone-poem exhuberance, nobody has ever topped Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos, but Scheherazade is my all-time favorite for endlessly varied tone-color, meaningful dynamic contrast, and profound emotional affekt. (There’s that word again; look it up, punks.)

Scheherazade has got something for everybody. Whatever instrument you love the most, somewhere in its 48 minutes there’s several featured solos with that instrument, and something else from every other family of instruments. There’s a lot of love to go around.

Before the concert I shared a few words with ASO bassist Michael Kurth, a composer in his own right. He commented on how Scheherazade, on analysis, comes across as repetitive. I wouldn’t quite describe it like that. What I would say is that Rimsky-Korsakov comes up with beaucoup themes to illustrate and support his tone-poem narrative, then bounces those themes all around the orchestra in as many different registers and tone colors as the imagination can appreciate.

Scheherazade has all the brass. And percussion. Massive resources. Several opportunities to blow the roof off the hall, late-19th-century style. But it’s all gently bookended by that haunting, unforgettable solo violin. David Coucheron knew just how to do it. You don’t drown it in syrupy vibrato. It’s certainly not loud, but still, you go for a raw, naked, vulnerable tone; you make it fragile, the musical affekt of a brilliant woman in chains pleading for her life night after night, if you know the story line. You rip on those astonishing double-stops in the latter solo, and you make that sustained high harmonic at the end just ache and ache and ache.

The ASO’s performance did for me what every good performance of Scheherazade has ever done for me. At the end, I was so enthralled I forgot to breathe.

Well, the rest of the audience was breathing, because they leapt to their feet and went nuts all over again. And this is where we find out how much love there is to go around. Spano nimbly leapt up to the percussion riser and worked his way across and down all the way through the orchestra, grabbing each soloist by the lapels and dragging each to their feet to thunderous acclaim. The audience favorite was probably bassoonist Keith Buncke, but I was just as enthusiastic about flutist Christina Smith, while my personal favorite was cellist Christopher Rex. Now forgive me (or better yet, correct me) if I didn’t identify the right musicians here. It wasn’t too clear on the score card.

I don’t get to see the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra very often. I just can’t afford it. (One of the reasons that I attend chamber music around here is that I have  friends in the various groups who sometimes offer me comps.) But I’ve come up with a plan to get myself into some ASO concerts next season; more on that as the plan unfolds.

Party on, dudes. And be excellent to each other.

Originally titled "Becoming a Guitarist"