Review: A triumphant goodbye to ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles
By Jon Ross
Donald Runnicles took the stage Saturday evening at Symphony Hall to secure his legacy at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and excerpts from Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” came in one-night-only fashion, after Wednesday’s shooting in Midtown led to a lockdown at Woodruff Arts Center and a canceled rehearsal. (The ticketed Thursday performance turned into a dress rehearsal.)
Runnicles began his tenure in Atlanta with former music director Robert Spano in 2001, and the principal guest conductor has put an indelible stamp on the orchestra and ASO chorus. His mark in Atlanta might be most immediately felt with Mahler; the conductor teamed up with Spano to perform a complete cycle of the 10 Mahler symphonies. Runnicles memorably led the ASO in Symphony No. 2 in 2012, when it was reported that a likely farewell was put to an end by a late contract extension. This time, the departure is final. (Mahler’s symphonies also soundtracked Spano’s departure last June.)
Mahler’s fifth begins with martial trumpet blasts, a short rhythmic figure that forms the foundation for the first section of the work. Acting principal trumpet Michael Tiscione, who has been with the ASO nearly as long as Runnicles, infused these opening solo trumpet notes with a propulsive quality that carried the musicians through the momentous 72-minute performance. Mahler’s work requires an enlarged orchestra, and Runnicles had both the regular ASO musicians and assorted temporary performers in peak performance mode. Standouts? The horn section has continually impressed this season, and on Saturday, the musicians sounded exquisite. The string section has long been a high point for the ASO, so my expectations for the famous fourth movement, when the orchestra is reduced to strings and harp for an introspective sonic love letter, were high. The emotive Adagietto shined.
Mahler’s symphony ends with a triumphant shout that amasses the sheer power of the enlarged orchestra. Cheers from the audience — for the performance, but mostly to recognize Runnicles’ departure — were tremendous and plentiful. After seemingly half-a-dozen curtain calls, Runnicles jokingly dragged concertmaster David Coucheron and associate concertmaster Justin Bruns offstage, putting an end to the celebration and an emphatic exclamation point on his tenure at the ASO.