ASO Plays Funny German Music

11.08.07
Donald Runnicles, Cho-Liang Lin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

You see your kid everyday and don't quite register the changes. Grandma visits every few months and, first thing, exclaims, "How he's grown!"

It's the same with conductors. Donald Runnicles, as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's principal guest conductor, visits Symphony Hall about four times a year - we hear his artistic development not as a smooth progression but in substantial jumps.

Granny's words were appropriate Thursday evening for the Scottish maestro's first ASO appearance of the season. His concert offered a pleasant theme: the playful side of the Austro-German tradition.

They opened with Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, music of svelte, feline charm. There's nothing heroic or self-consciously "important" about the Fourth, which further enhances its greatness.

Under Runnicles' baton, it sounded relaxed, thoughtfully prepared, properly rehearsed, beautifully executed and, above all, playful. The Menuetto movement was as boisterous as a kitten swatting repeatedly at a ball of yarn.

Their reading wasn't note perfect - with a few mishaps of coordination and bassoonist Carl Nitchie blurring a prominent solo passage - but in spirit the symphony soared, a joy to experience.

In Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3, Taiwanese-American violinist Cho-Liang Lin - "Jimmy" to his friends - played the modest and dapper super-virtuoso. His tone was powerful and sweet, his every phrase ideally turned, his restraint a sure sign of a (musically) noble pedigree.

Conductor and orchestra were of like mind and supported the violinist with a light, supple touch. The whole thing seemed to float on a cushion of air.

Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," from 1895, tells the tale, in graphic musical imagery, of the Medieval German folk legend, a sort of nasty Robin Hood with a chip on his shoulder. In this case, humor is no laughing matter.

Runnicles is expert in this music, he clearly adores it and treats it like a pinnacle of the orchestral literature. For a while he had the rest of us believing it, too.