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What recession? ASO prepares ambitious 65th season

ASO Director Robert Spano

ASO Director Robert Spano

ASO Season Preview
Sept. 24-June 12. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org

By Pierre Ruhe

Time was, major American orchestras opened their season with a gala concert — a one-off night to party. The economy, and changing audience habits and expectations, quashed that tradition. But the Atlanta Symphony launches its 65th year on Sept. 24 in Symphony Hall with two sonically overpowering works that would happily anchor any gala.
The ASO’s main classical season for 2009-10 was mostly planned before we sunk to the depths of recession, and the programming seems to reflect a certain pre-pessimistic attitude. From now till mid-June — 24 weekends of classical concerts — there’s an event of uncommon interest almost every week, with no fewer than five premieres, a semi-staged opera, intriguing music by contemporary composers and, not least, the ASO Chorus in beefy choral masterpieces.

In three performances next week —Sept. 24, 26 and 27 — ASO music director Robert Spano leads the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 and Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with poetically brawny pianist Garrick Ohlsson, a favorite with local audiences.
Next week comes the first premiere, of sorts. Two seasons ago, Croatian-born pianist Dejan Lazic was set to perform a Beethoven concerto with the ASO. Backstage, noodling on the keyboard with Spano, Lazic ran through his own re-imagining of Brahms’ hallowed Violin Concerto, which he’d transcribed for solo piano while leaving the orchestra parts alone.
A flaky idea, to some, but not without precedent. (Beethoven himself retooled his Violin Concerto for a piano soloist.)
Spano was instantly smitten with Lazic’s new version of Brahms.
Two weeks after the Brahms/Lazic concerto, the ASO and cellist Yo-Yo Ma will bring a new voice to Symphony Hall, Oct. 15 and 16. Angel Lam is a young and largely unproven composer, from Hong Kong and Los Angeles. She’s written music for Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, but not yet for a major orchestra. Her cello concerto, evocatively titled “Awakening from a Disappearing Garden,” was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for its festival “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices: Celebrating Chinese Culture.”
After Atlanta performances — two nights only — the ASO will pack up Lam’s concerto, accompanied by Stravinsky’s Chinese fairy-tale opera “The Nightingale,” and take it on tour to Carnegie for the festival.
The Atlanta warm-up for New York is a good thing. With classical megastar Ma on the program, the Atlanta concerts are already close to sold out. In New York, the ASO and Spano up their reputations and the ASO’s (almost) annual appearances on that fabled stage boosts the orchestra’s national presence.
Like the Carnegie Hall prep concert, an Oct. 29-30 program of Brahms “A German Requiem” was instigated by an outside institution. Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles has become a regular guest at what’s often tagged the world’s greatest orchestra: the Berlin Philharmonic. For several of his appearances in Berlin, Runnicles has brought along the ASO Chorus; they’ll all go back to the German capital in December to reprise the Requiem.

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