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The Atlanta Olympia Spirit

New York
Perelman Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
11/05/2011 -  
Esa-Pekka Salonen Nyx (NY Premiere)
Alexander Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy (Symphony Number 4), Opus 54
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Opus 30

Garrick Ohlsson (Pianist)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano (Music Director and Conductor)

R. Spano (© Andrew Eccles)

For the Atlanta Symphony, those 1996 Olympic Games have never vanished. Their visit to Carnegie Hall last night included three works of absolutely Olympian proportions. A trio of music which had to exhaust the whole orchestra, conductor Robert Spano, and their usually inexhaustible soloist, Garrick Ohlsson as well.

The New York premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s newest work, was 17 minutes of brilliant orchestral colors, with an ensemble including orchestra bells, tubular bells, sizzle cymbals, gongs and a heavy brass section. The following Poem of Ecstasy, aimed for the heavens and the trumpets had to reach for the stratosphere. The final Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto was 42 muscular minutes of orchestra and solo. That Colossus of pianists, Garrick Ohlsson, took it all in his manual stride, but this was still an Olympian challenge for anybody.

Two of these works were familiar (they had both been given world premieres at Carnegie Hall itself a century ago), both examples of Fin de siècle composition.

But the Finn of this century has got to be Mr. Salonen. An incomparable conductor, his recent compositions are broad, complex, and orchestrally adventurous. Co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Radio France, Barbican Centre and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Nyx refers to one of the most obscure Greek mythological figures, far far antedating Minerva, Athena and Zeus. He seems to represent Night, or something else shadowy. Whatever Nyx is, it inspired Mr. Salonen

The key to Nyx is remembrance. A group of themes is set off at the beginning, with horns, a clarinet (brilliantly played by Laura Arden), some other brass. Once you remember the notes (not the rhythms), the tapestry is set.

For now Salonen proceeds to engineer the orchestra (in his words) “in full throttle.” You can hear those tones, but they are chemically transmuted. You can separate the lines, hear the choirs of strings broadening out the clarinet melody, hear the winds and horn choirs mixing it up with other melodies.

At all times, Salonen is in control of his full-blown orchestration (as Mr. Spano was in charge of his orchestra). At other times, he shows a nymph-like delicacy. Flutes or piccolos running furious scales, duplicated by bells, vibraphone, against violin arpeggios was one rare example taking our ears of the full ensemble.

But for the most part, this was a swirling tone-poem of excitement, contrapuntal equations and enough color to delight even the first-time listener.

They showed their technical prowess with the Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy, with the kind of crescendo that any conductor would envy. This and the stratospheric trumpet solos by Thomas Hooten was an antidote to Friday’s intellectual hour of Scriabin piano music.

Thi third Olympian work was Rachmaninoff’s chocolate cake, his Third Piano Concerto. The composer, with his fabled hand-span, played the premiere here in 1909. I don’t know Mr. Ohlsson’s manual dimensions, but standing at about six-and-a-half feet, he has always been ready for the greater technical challenges.

G. Ohlsson (© Courtesy of the artist)

The Concerto is lush, dense, requires the brazen muscularity of a Bronfman–or an Ohlsson. But where the former would dazzle us, Mr. Ohlsson took a relatively more elegant way out.

Yes, he could thunder his way through it (like the segue into the third movement), but he and Mr. Spano must have had an agreement to allow Rachmaninoff’s meticulous counterpoint, his luminous phrases, his sense of tension. It is, and always will be, a showcase for Olympian pianists who can stand the pace. But Mr. Ohlsson showed, if not a restrained Rachmaninoff, at least a composer whose hands and heart could be controlled by his head.

As for Mr. Spano, we miss him s-o-o– badly back at the Brooklyn Phil. But as long as he has the chutzpah to challenges his timid Tea Party audiences in the American Southeast, Robert Spano will always be a spiritual New Yorker.

Harry Rolnick



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