Spano and New World unite in blazing performance at Arsht Center

02.21.10
Robert Spano, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
South Florida Classical Review

By Lawrence Budmen

Robert Spano is one of America’s finest conductors.  A first-class orchestral technician, Spano leads a wide array of repertoire with flair and bracing vitality. Music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Spano brought his mastery to the podium of the New World Symphony Saturday night at the Arsht Center, instilling an appealing, brilliant edge to the ensemble’s sonority.

Gershwin’s An American in Paris is often regarded as pops fare but Spano illuminated how original and striking this familiar score can sound in an intelligent, subtly conveyed performance. Favoring relaxed tempos, he pinpointed a wealth of instrumental detail, particularly in the woodwinds, obscured in more superficial performances. Proving Gershwin’s sound portrait owes as much to the silver screen as to the Champs-Elysees, Spano had the New World strings playing with the sophisticated tonal sheen of a 1930’s Hollywood film orchestra. Concertmaster Katherine Bormann’s elegantly tailored violin solos riveted attention while the crackling polish of jazzy clarinet and trumpet themes radiated excitement. Utilizing Frank Campbell-Watson’s orchestration, Spano reinvented Gershwin’s chestnut as a Jazz Age tone poem of clashing modernist harmonies.

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, completed in 1941, represents Old World lyricism updated by a distinctively American creative voice. Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg can be a hyper, eccentric violinist but she approached Barber’s melodious work in a restrained manner, her spacious phrasing allowing Barber’s lovely themes to flow with unforced beauty on an inexorable wave of song. Her soft playing set the dulcet mood of the opening movement with Spano shaping wind lines in an accompaniment that channeled the refined, collaborative nuance of chamber music. Salerno-Sonnenberg tossed off the fiddle fireworks of the finale with speedy brio and high-tech polish, with Spano and the orchestra in synch every step of the way.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor was set ablaze by Spano in a reading that did equal justice to the score’s nostalgic pathos and dramatic menace. The plush tone, warmth and flowing urgency of the cellos and violas in the principal theme of the first movement was succeeded by a torrent of brassy, percussive climaxes. During the Adagio, the initial evocative Russian yearning, eloquently voiced by outstanding solo winds, was succeeded by a Mahleresque scherzo, with Spano guiding every macabre twist and turn with relentless momentum. The robust string attack of the concluding Allegro contrasted with the ominous Dies irae and infernal dance emblazoned by blaring brass and crack percussion, the final climax disturbing in its visceral power.