Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: Mozart glistens, Sibelius warms

Mickelthwate steps in to lead, Smith performs an indispensable classic

by Mark Gresham

Thursday's Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall was the second in as many weeks featuring an ASO principal musician as soloist. Principal flute Christina Smith performed Mozart's “Flute Concerto No. 1,” flanked on either side by Beethoven's “Leonore Overture No. 2” and the “Symphony No. 2” of Jean Sibelius. The entire was led by guest conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, a former ASO assistant conductor who is now music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Mickelthwate was a late replacement for an ailing Ilan Volkov, thus the Beethoven overture a replacement for a planned pair of works by American composers Carl Ruggles and Ruth Crawford Seeger. (It is worth noting that although his full-time post while in Atlanta was with the ASO, Mickelthwate is possibly best remembered for leading an electrifying performance of John Zorn's "Cobra" with Bent Frequency, a local new music ensemble he co-founded, at the alternative arts venue Eyedrum.)

The Beethoven opened the program. Of the four overtures to Beethoven's sole opera Fidelio, what we know as the Leonore No. 2 was actually the first, written for premiere of the original 1805 version of the opera. The piece started off as a good but somewhat mainstream performance, but about halfway through the Allegro the work became fully engaged and exciting, then caught fire by the time it reached the two auf der B├╝hne trumpet flourishes played from off stage right by principal Thomas Hooten. From that point, the work was home free, down to the final repeated C major chords.

Mozart's “Flute Concerto No. 1” was the next piece on the docket. The previous evening, I had talked with flutist Christina Smith by phone about performing it.

“I have done much more contemporary works the last several times I've been soloist,” said Smith. “Going back to Mozart is like and ice skater going back to their figure eights. It's that basic core of beauty in our repertoire.” Such a basic part of repertoire it is, she indicates, that almost universally it is the first piece a performer is required to play for a serious audition, and indeed she teaches it to a lot of flute students for that purpose. So for Smith, going back and playing it in concert instead is a particular joy. The last time she performed it with the ASO was in 1998, with Carl Saint Claire conducting.

“[It] is very elegant, very poised, very idiomatic for the flute,” says Smith of Mozart's writing. So she takes a relatively straightforward, simple approach to interpretation. “I think the music absolutely speaks for itself, and you don't have to do anything innovative with interpreting it. It's all about the things about the instrument that are beautiful: the lyricism of the flute, the tone quality, the light, beautiful articulation that the flute can do. Mozart absolutely captures that and that's what I'm really going for when I perform it.”

And indeed, that is the epitome of the “classical mind” of Mozart's day: beauty is something revealed by an artist, rather than forced into bloom by the artist's will. Even if Mickelthwate was not fully in sync with Smith at a few points in the first movement, Smith's performance was blithesome, with a natural virtuosic ease of expression; the second possessed lucid lyricism; and the concluding rondo a cheerful, sprightly tempo di minuetto.

The last time the ASO had performed Sibleius' “Symphony No. 2” was in 2002, with Robert Spano conducting. It happens that this was during the time when Mickelthwate was an assistant conductor with the orchestra, which would have obliged him to be prepared to step in and conduct it if necessary. Sibelius is one of Spano's strong suits, so the understudy work as an assistant surely would have had impact. Nine years later, Mickelthwate has made this Sibelius his own, and he brought to the symphony a warmly confident, sweeping interpretation. He will soon conduct it again back home with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, December 2nd and 3rd. □

Photo credits: Jeff Roffman

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