By Nicollette Higgs
When I purchased a ticket for a front row seat to The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) concert, I got more than a front seat: I gained an experience. Every blink, every furrowed brow, every motion and every note was magnified as I watched and listened from a seat that was a little over a foot away from the Steinway & Sons grand piano at center stage. The brightly lit wooden floor of the stage led my gaze to the glint of the stringed and brass instruments and the musicians who played them as they warmed up.
The Grammy Award-winning orchestra, led by music director Robert Spano, performed Guiseppe Verdi’s overture to “La forza del destino” (1862), Ottorino Respighi’s “Concerto in modo misolidio” (1925) and Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 2 in D Major” (1877).
Alexandra Arrieche, a Brazlian-born conductor, conducted the Verdi’s overture. Unfortunately, I could not see her and the grand piano that left me in awe a few minutes prior became a nuisance. The first notes from the woodwinds and brass rang through Hodgson Concert Hall and my ears adjusted to a melody that reminded me of an eerie opening to a dramatic film or play. The sound grew brighter and more cheerful toward the end as Arrieche conducted, and she turned the spotlight over the Olli Mustonen for the next composition.
Mustonen, a well-known Finnish conductor and composer, acted as the pianist and conductor for the Respighi concerto and it was a treat to see and hear the orchestra keep up with him. As the piece became more complex, each movement seemed like a new battle between Mustonen and the rest of the orchestra and I was holding my breath to see who would win. My attention was split between the violins and the violas and cellos as they had a call and response conversation. And the piano had no problem interjecting. Mustonen’s dramatic movements and facial expressions—things I’m not used to seeing up close — reflected the emotional tone of the music. All moments of tension or resolve were paired with his exaggerated character. By the end of the piece, Mustonen won.
The Brahms Symphony, a work that took 21 years to create, translated into a 40-minute dynamic piece made up of four movements. The first movement was based on a variation of Brahms’ famous lullaby and the popular musical phrase appeared throughout. I was captivated by the struggle between somber and cheerful sections of music as the key signature shifted from a dark tone to a light one. Light prevailed in the final movement where the song ends on a lively note.
I expected nothing less than a sharp and professional performance from ASO, but what I didn’t expect to see was each musician’s personal reaction to the highlights of what they do for a living. Throughout the performance, there were moments where musicians exchanged glances to communicate or smiled when they played an upbeat section of music. These moments reveal the chemistry between the musicians that are most likely lost on an audience that is more concerned with what they hear and not what they see. In the future I wouldn’t hesitate to see this orchestra perform again.