Overview: ASO begins season with Joel Thompson’s sensible “To Awaken The Sleeper”

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It’s opening night time on the new Atlanta Symphony Orchestra! The beginning of the 78th season, with a brand new music director, epic repertoire, a brand new creative agenda! Champagne, ball robes and tuxedos, long-winded speeches — nobody is aware of how one can get together just like the ATL! 

Besides that every one begins in two weeks. Nathalie Stutzmann takes the rostrum for the primary time because the ASO’s fifth music director, highlighted by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, on October 14. 

However Thursday in Symphony Corridor, formally Week Certainly one of Season 78, the live performance was a extra modest affair — deliberately gentle, maybe, to not spoil the season’s first huge glittery occasion.

Conductor Peter Oundjian, a daily ASO visitor, led a really Atlanta-like program, together with a Mozart piano concerto with a favourite soloist, a current work by a younger composer and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

The spotlight of the night, an authentic new voice, sat within the center. Oundjian introduced with him Joel Thompson’s To Awaken the Sleeper, a chunk that the conductor and his Colorado Music Pageant commissioned in 2020 throughout an infected 12 months of societal unrest.

Peter Oundjian
Visitor conductor Peter Oundjian led the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in its 2022-23 season opener.

The composer is native. Raised in Gwinnett County, Thompson is an Emory College graduate who just lately accomplished his composition doctorate at Yale. He’s shifting quick, with main commissions from the Houston Grand Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and extra. His most talked-about work is Seven Final Phrases of the Unarmed, from 2014, the place every motion is linked to a Black sufferer of police and vigilante violence, together with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The piece ends with the phrases “I can’t breathe.” By musical construction and title, he likens the murdered males to Christ on the cross. 

In To Awaken the Sleeper, for orchestra and narrator, Thompson was impressed by “the insightful and prophetic phrases” of James Baldwin, and he quotes from three of the writer’s writings, establishing a seamless narration on justice, democracy, tyranny and an oppressive “vocabulary which now can’t bear the burden of actuality.”

Firstly, the music explodes in kaleidoscopic cacophony. A listener’s ear jumps throughout the stage manically, greedy for a phrase or a hook to hold on to. Quickly what is likely to be an Ivesian marching-band tune seems and fades someplace in a thicket. It will get loud. It dissolves into sweeping blocks of sound. The orchestral colours are sometimes dazzling. As narrator, Thompson — showing poised and relaxed in a crisp brown go well with — enters with the phrases “So be it! We can’t awaken the sleeper, and God is aware of we now have tried . . .” 

Baldwin’s trendy prose, each line of it, may very well be reprinted to explain the important thing moments in Thompson’s work. The composer doesn’t brush previous any of it, as an alternative having the orchestra supply a working commentary on the textual content. In devastating moments, he is aware of to skinny out the orchestral scoring and let the phrases do the speaking: “Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any Black man, any poor particular person — ask the wretched how they fare within the halls of justice, after which you’ll know whether or not or not it has any love for justice, or any idea of it.”   

Moments later, he evokes the fife and drum to encompass Revolutionary Battle language: “When energy interprets itself into tyranny, it signifies that the rules on which that energy depended, and which have been its justification, are bankrupt.”

"To Awaken The Sleeper"
Thompson’s piece exhibits he is a vital new voice to comply with.

When “rules on which a brand new world can be constructed” take us towards decision, Thompson places a halo of strings round it, maybe borrowing from earthy English string serenades. But there’s nothing cliched in his writing, no acquired musical knowledge. Thompson has his personal story to inform.   

Thompson’s music is alive and inquisitive, in fixed dialogue with itself and the textual content. He pays shut consideration to compositional craft, with out wasted effort. There’s nonetheless a hint of the scholar in his writing — an overuse of cymbals rolled by delicate mallets, like a slow-motion metallic splash, for instance — however a lot originality and lucid power and stylistic confidence. He’s an essential voice to comply with. The ASO, clearly, should fee him instantly.    

As befits opening night time, first up was “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The brass part went principally their particular person methods, so it seemed like an Oktoberfest efficiency by the world’s most luxurious German oom-pah-pah band. 

Following the anthem, they began the present with a smallish, Classical-era ensemble on stage and the estimable Emanuel Ax on the keyboard for Mozart’s beautiful, undervalued Piano Concerto No. 18. (Even the selection of concerto signaled this wouldn’t be a night of fireworks.)   

A gray-haired teddy bear of a person, Ax is, as ever, pure grace and class. On a very good night time, there’s virtually nobody else you’d slightly hear on this repertoire. For the concerto’s march-like introduction, Oundjian had the strings play superbly and really quietly — a very good signal that the conductor had his musicians beneath full management. Ax entered, his phrases so liquid, his contact light and lyrical but stuffed with depth. There have been even hints of operatic Mozart, splendidly, as if the pianist have been a Marriage of Figaro character and the ASO have been accompanying within the pit. Musically, it rings true.

Visitor pianist Emanuel Ax performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18.

They couldn’t fairly maintain that strategy. The gradual center motion was buttery heat if low in power. Within the finale, they discovered moments of depth and gave the impression to be progressively constructing rapport. However all through the concerto, the entire was by no means better than the sum of its many delicate and wonderful elements. (Saturday’s repeat efficiency ought to be notably improved.)     

It’s loopy, however because the pandemic, there have been no encores at ASO concert events — regardless of the evident approval from the viewers and regardless of the benefit of applauding for a number of extra seconds to yield yet one more curtain name, bringing again the soloist who would humbly give thanks . . . after which sit down to supply a small present to appreciative listeners. Nope, no extra. Encores appear one more beloved exercise misplaced to Covid.      

After intermission, Oundjian closed the night with the Symphonic Dances by Sergei Rachmaninoff, his final work, composed in 1940. Moody, sensible, pessimistic, each nostalgic and trendy, the Symphonic Dances aren’t fairly dance music, whilst every of the three actions have a rhythmic, dance-like theme. The feelings are saved at arm’s size.

In Atlanta, we’d been spoiled by former music director Robert Spano’s unusually highly effective conception of this turbulent work and, to me, he appeared to have performed it as memorably as something in his repertoire. He made it sound higher than it most likely is. Spano’s interpretation — and right here I grossly oversimplify — was vertical: You have been listening to the music up and down the total rating, in all its harmonic complexity and connectivity. Internal voices have been typically dropped at the fore, to richly satisfying impact. All of it sounded very three-dimensional, bristling with power. 

Oundjian, extra historically, took a slightly horizontal strategy — a delicate however actual distinction — letting the lengthy singing melodies unspool, if usually seemingly with out internal help. It sounded extra Romantic and just a little kitschy, missing a agency viewpoint — a grand assertion that fell wanting its personal ambition.

Nonetheless, To Awaken the Sleeper, by a serious new Atlanta composer, shouldn’t be missed. The live performance repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.


Pierre Ruhe was the founding govt director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Put up, London’s Monetary Instances and the Atlanta Journal-Structure, and was director of creative planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He’s publications director of Early Music America.


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