In recent months, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has presented more than a few concerts that felt like special events, of dazzling new soloists and world premieres and epic rarities in the concert hall. Thursday’s show in Symphony Hall was normal in the extreme: familiar faces, standard repertoire, everything played nicely within the ASO’s comfort zone.
Donald Runnicles, who is finishing up his two-decade tenure as ASO principal guest conductor, was on the podium. Just a pair of pieces were on his program, and both of them might have felt indescribably comfortable to the Scottish maestro: Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, a violin concerto with a prominent part for harp that’s based on old Scottish folk tunes, and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3.
ASO Concertmaster David Coucheron and harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson were the star attractions in the Bruch concerto, planted on either side of the conductor’s podium. Both had music stands in front of them, although Coucheron never seemed to consult the printed page during his solo turns.
The opening Prelude, melancholy and nostalgic, has a “gather ’round and I’ll tell you a story” vibe, and we were immediately reminded of Coucheron’s virtues on the violin: a succulent tone with warm, generous phrasing and the sort of musical intelligence (so common among concertmaster types) that suggests he knows his solo part inside out but also where his role fits in the grand scheme of the concerto. We get the Who and the What; he also gives us the Why. Coucheron is a big guy and the violin appears tiny in his paws, and he never makes playing the instrument look effortless. Yet everything comes out buttery smooth and rich.
After a solid, if somewhat pallid Prelude, everything came alive in the second movement, the dancing Scherzo, with Coucheron’s force of personality propelling the story. We hear the drone of the bagpipes, played by the horns and lower string voices, with the solo violin playing the folk melody “The Dusty Miller.” Runnicles kept it all crisp and physical and moving.
Bruch, born in 1838 in what’s now Germany, never visited Scotland but set rugged and hummable Scottish tunes (or his free imagination of those tunes) several times across his career. The musical Scotch that Bruch presents in his Fantasy, as one waggish commentator noted, is “smooth and sweet rather than smoky and untamed — more Johnnie Walker Black than Laphroaig.”
True to form, Runnicles had a knack for accompanying the concerto, where the orchestra played full on, everything shaped and weighted, yet never overpowering the soloists. It made an ideal musical partnership. The conductor coaxed great detail from the final movements, with no sections on stage glossing over their parts, no inner voices neglected. In concert, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this piece so robustly balanced, so brimming with character. (Too often, the solo violin is the driving hero and everyone else takes a back seat.)
The harp, mostly atmospheric in the first sections of the concerto, makes its presence felt in the Finale, marked Allegro guerriero, fast and warlike. Despite the common cliche of the soothing and angelic harp, there was nothing milquetoast in Remy Johnson’s playing. Her short duets with Coucheron were beautiful and evocative and made me wish the duo had found something rousing for violin and harp to serve as an encore. Alas, we got no encore.
After intermission, the “Eroica” charged at full power, as it often can. Two abrupt chords, the least pretentious opening in the history of music, and we’re off. For most of the first movement, Runnicles had us on edge. He had the strings really bite into all those slashing chords, with heavy bow pressure and crisp articulation, creating enormous tension with only modest release. It’s worth mentioning that, with Coucheron’s duties complete for the night, associated concertmaster Justin Bruns, an excellent player, sat at the head of the violin section. (It made one wonder how he’d shape the ASO’s sound if he had the top job.)
At key moments, when the horns offer bits of chatter and punctuation, Runnicles would aggressively point at them and mouth the phrase himself — and their notes were ferociously effective. This opening to the “Eroica” was all about power, mostly Beethoven’s authority over the orchestra. Played to the hilt, it was emotionally exhilarating and physically draining to hear.
In Runnicles’ reading, the famous Funeral March almost sounded as if from a different piece, such was the changed emphasis and soundscape. There were many moments of quiet and open space — the tempo wasn’t unusually slow but the interpretation was full of reflection and mourning. The Scherzo movement, lighter and more playful but still with dark undercurrents, pranced along nicely, although the musicians started to seem fatigued. The hunting horn calls, which create such a delightful image, were rough around the edges: The three horn players were neither well blended nor ideally in tune. (This has happened before, when Runnicles pushes his musicians harder than most visiting conductors and they seem to lack stamina.)
But the orchestra revitalized in the finale, and as the symphony’s ultimate resolution approached, everything felt justified. The emotional release had been earned. With Runnicles, you got the feeling that at the very start of the “Eroica,” with those two slashing chords, he was already steering us on a straight line toward the grand conclusion three-quarters of an hour later.
The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.