ASO review: Guest conductor Matthias Pintscher deftly showcases orchestra’s strengths

Matthias Pintscher

By Mark Gresham

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continued the autumn leg of its subscription season this past week with concerts led by composer and guest conductor Matthias Pintscher that featured guest violin soloist Karen Gomyo.

In Friday night’s performance at Symphony Hall, Pintscher’s own eight-minute study “Towards Osiris” opened the concert. The name of the piece, written in 2005, refers to the fact that it was a preparatory study for a longer work, “Osiris,” completed two years later. Pintscher described his inspiration, rooted in Egyptian mythology, in this 2010 video.

It’s a brilliant work of textures and contrasts, in a style that is still current aesthetic fashion in Western Europe — think Ensemble InterContemporain, the contemporary chamber orchestra founded by Pierre Boulez in 1976, which has tagged Pintscher as its new music director.

Painstakingly orchestrated, and fastidiously conducted by Pintscher sans baton, “Towards Osiris” featured copious extended techniques for the often greatly divided strings (see this sample page on the composer’s website). It also had some well-executed standout passages for the large percussion section (six players plus timpanist) and an absolutely jaw-dropping trumpet solo played brilliantly by Karin Bliznik.

Next up was Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major (K. 219) by Mozart, written in 1775 when he was 19 years old. With the orchestration for two oboes, two horns and a modest string section far smaller than in Pintscher’s piece, some members of the orchestra who were not performing the Mozart came out to sit with the audience to hear Gomyo play.

Gomyo is a serious and dramatically intense violinist, in her bodily movements as much as in the sounds she makes. But while she is a good violinist, her performance did not electrify. It was at first hard to put a finger on why, but it seems that she focuses her great intensity upon the microcosm, the careful shaping of individual notes, so much that it came across as overly affected and at the cost of conveying larger musical gestures.

What is baffling is that in audio samples on her website of Bach, Barber, Piazzola and the like, Gomyo’s manner of playing pays off musically and does not feel overdone. But with this particular Mozart concerto, on this night, it felt wrong. A contributing factor may be that Pintscher seemed somewhat less assured as an accompanist than when conducting the orchestra alone. I would be interested to hear Gomyo again under different circumstances with different repertoire.

After intermission, the full orchestra returned to the stage for the evocative “Rapsodie espagnole” by Ravel, followed by music from Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet “The Firebird” in its 1945 incarnation as an orchestral suite.

Both pieces showed off the ASO extremely well, allowing opportunity for individual players and sections to have featured moments. Notable in the Ravel piece was a cadenza in the first movement (“Prélude à la nuit”) for two clarinets, played by Laura Ardan and William Rappaport, echoed nine bars later by bassoonists Carl Nitchie and Elizabeth Burkhardt. There was also a langid, winding English horn solo plaintively played by Emily Brebach at about two and a half minutes into the concluding “Feria” movement.

In the Stravinsky, there was a pair of noble horn solos played by Brice Andrus, a lyrical bassoon solo in the “Lullaby” section played by Nitchie, and a brief pair of bold up-and-down trombone slides played in exceptionally smooth arcs by Nathan Zgonc, among many notable moments. This is the kind of colorful large-orchestra repertoire that the ASO musicians can really dig into with satisfaction and communicate to the audience.

During the ovations, Pintscher took great care to acknowledge individual players and sections among the orchestra. It’s the right thing to do because, when it comes down to the essentials, it’s the body of musicians who are the orchestra, regardless of whatever kind of institution it is wrapped within. Just as fans know the members of a major-league baseball team, ASO audiences ought to better familiarize themselves with the individual artists who together make possible an inspired orchestra.