A Shadowy Goddess as Musical Muse

Garrick Ohlsson
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

The conductor Robert Spano has a well-deserved reputation for innovative programming, bolstered by 10 high-growth seasons as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Many New Yorkers remember his dynamic eight-year tenure as music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, which ended in 2004. 

Yet on paper the program Mr. Spano planned for the Atlanta Symphony’s concert at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night looked like a curious selection of pieces. To open there was a new work by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy,” Symphony No. 4 (completed in 1908), seemed an unusual choice to follow the Salonen. The second half offered a popular staple: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909), with the masterly pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

As usual, though, Mr. Spano knew what he was doing. The surprising musical resonances among these diverse scores came through vibrantly in three brilliant performances.

Mr. Salonen’s “Nyx” is an 18-minute, single-movement pulsing piece for large orchestra, first performed in February in Paris. Mr. Spano conducted the American premiere recently in Atlanta. Mr. Salonen had hoped to be at Carnegie Hall for the New York premiere, but as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London he remained in Vienna, where that orchestra is in the midst of a tour featuring performances of Bartok’s opera “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Mr. Salonen sent apologies via Twitter: “Was planning to go but #bluebeard depleted batteries.”

That Nyx is a nebulous figure in Greek mythology is exactly what made this shadowy goddess an intriguing source of inspiration for Mr. Salonen. He makes no attempt to depict Nyx precisely in the piece, he writes in a program note. And if I had not known the work’s title, I would still have been swept along.

It opens with ominous, distant horns, like some primordial fanfare, that evolves into spiraling figures and fleeting motifs. Sometimes the music turns assertive and declamatory, with melodic ideas unfolding in thick, note-crammed, textured chords, harmonically ambiguous yet grounded. Recurrent themes keep coming back in new transformations and colorings. “Nyx” is especially alluring during its long stretches of delicate, transparent writing. Mr. Spano drew glowing, incisive playing from the orchestra.

On the surface Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy” is similar to “Nyx”: another single-movement, radiant and sensual orchestral essay, lasting 20 minutes and played to the hilt. Here were two teeming, modernist works from different eras but linked in daring.

But a more specific connection that Mr. Spano wanted to make was between the Scriabin symphony and Rachmaninoff’s concerto: pieces by Russian pianist-composers that received their premiere performances in New York within a year of each other. Though there was plenty of spectacular virtuosity in Mr. Ohlsson’s playing, he and Mr. Spano brought out the intricacies, inner textures and constant inventiveness of the concerto.

Mr. Ohlsson dispatched the rippling passagework and crashing chords with authority and rhapsodic sweep. But this was an uncommonly elegant and lucid Rachmaninoff Third. The orchestra played splendidly, producing rich, dark string sound in the elegiac opening of the slow movement.

The Atlanta Symphony’s celebration of Mr. Spano’s directorship includes a video, “A Decade of Robert Spano,” which can be seen online. To judge from the large turnout and big ovations, he and the Atlanta players are always welcome at Carnegie Hall.