Model Audience Behavior for Garrick Ohlsson and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

United StatesUnited States  Salonen, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 5.11.2011 (BH)

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Nyx (2011; New York premiere)
Scriabin: Le poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy, Symphony No. 4), Op. 54 (1905-1908)
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30 (1909)

“I feel like I need a cigarette and a shower,” said the friend with me after the glittering, no-holds-barred Scriabin Le poème de l’extase, which closed the first half of this program by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Some sensational orchestral playing aside, what made the Scriabin magical was conductor Robert Spano’s unflagging patience in letting the score unfold at just the right pace. (Really, you know, orgasms can’t be rushed.) The orchestra’s focus and transparency helped keep the swooning from becoming too clotted; one felt borne aloft. And truly, the sound of the ensemble was ravishing, with special words of praise for two prominent soloists, principal trumpet Thomas Hooten and concertmaster David Coucheron.

And perhaps by coincidence, the Scriabin made a fine companion to Nyx, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s new essay in color. Here a Debussy-esque brass opening quickly rises to a gigantic, radiant climax. String and flute writing flutters; textures are in constant, swirling motion. And as in the Scriabin, Spano allowed the score to bloom, not racing through, giving life to every measure of Salonen’s shimmering palette.

When Salonen stepped down from his Los Angeles Philharmonic post, one of his stated reasons was to devote more time to composing. Of course, he continues to guest-conduct around the world, but with his recent works he does seem to be in a compositional groove, writing masterfully.

After intermission, Garrick Ohlsson gave one of the most poetic readings of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto I’ve heard in years. (And Salonen made a fine choice to couple it with the Scriabin, since the two were composed roughly a year apart.) Ohlsson, Spano and the ensemble were in perfect alignment; after several unsatisfying outings with pianists in the last few weeks, it was a relief to hear a concert in which all those onstage were on the same page.

Ohlsson – who towers over most people – roamed through the score as if to say, “Look, I may be a big guy but I can play like a dove.” Rather than nonstop bravura, his solo passages had assurance, impressive technique and ruminative eloquence. The first movement’s closing pianissimo bars were a marvel. The slow movement was aching, sensuous – a joy – and the finale rippled with power, yet never explosive in a way that pulled the whole out of shape. Ohlsson, Spano and the orchestra have just released a recording of the concerto (on the orchestra’s ASO Live label, coupled with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances) and if it is anything like this performance, they may have a real contender in a crowded field.

For an encore, Ohlsson returned to the bench and said, with a perfectly straight face, “This piece is too famous to announce.” What we received was a delicate, magnificently realized “Clair de Lune” that had the audience spellbound. When he finished, hands held in the air, the room was completely silent – incredibly, for a good fifteen seconds (we counted) until the ovations erupted. A model encore, with model audience behavior: if only this happened every night.

Bruce Hodges