Too much talk, not enough edge 

ASO's latest performance lacked personality

Symphony Hall, Oct. 6 -- Last weekend's Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert paired two guest artists -- conductor William Eddins and violinist Rachel Barton -- for a night of music written or adapted for film. No John Williams anthems here -- those showcased were genuinely gifted symphonic composers outside the film genre, who (with the exception of Saint-Saens) owed Hollywood for at least some of their fame and prosperity, if not their genius.

So far this season, the ASO has not lived up to its highest standard for clean playing, and its energy as an ensemble has been lacking. But for this performance, Eddins managed to pull some real passion and sweep out of the orchestra. And if his dynamic shadings weren't particularly subtle, at least they weren't boring.

The opening piece -- music from Korngold's score to Captain Blood -- was performed with appropriate swashbuckling verve. Next came Nino Rota's "La Strada," a work culled from nearly a dozen of his film scores for Fellini. Too disconnected to form a cohesive whole, the piece is made up of thematically fragmented themes that are striking in and of themselves, but bewildering when strung together. Solo instruments voiced quirky musical personalities, but the orchestra's playing lacked personality and spirit -- just as the piece lacked comprehension.

The opening bars of Saint-Saens' "Rondo Capriccioso" -- a virtuoso warhorse for the violinist -- were played with even more thought than usual, before going into the sprightly minor key that, for anyone brought up in the cartoon generation, likely brought to mind dancing skeletons and other figures of the macabre. Rachel Barton's playing is as charming as she is on stage -- and that's saying a lot. But this young violinist is capable of far more than she's delivering right now. Though understated and stylishly subtle, her playing blends with the orchestra too much where it should stand out. Barton brought out the throbbing middle tones of her instrument, and she handled the delicate runs without breaking a sweat. Still, rubatos were taken too slowly and deliberately, and her playing lacked the tension that should have sustained and propelled the piece.

Elsewhere, Barton handled the "Carmen Fantasy" by Franz Waxman with technical deftness and panache. Like the Saint-Saens piece, it showcased her naturally beautiful tone, and her lyricism of line and phrasing. Tonally, Barton has that particular, indescribable intensity that is peculiar to some of the great solo violinists, but she needs to bring it up several notches in volume and power to move into the upper echelon of violinists.

The best musical performance of the evening came in "On the Waterfront," Leonard Bernstein's only film score. Transitional and experimental, its complexly interwoven phrases fall into crashes of sound before righting themselves into consonances that are uniquely Bernstein's. Such careful craftsmanship was handled skillfully -- and musically -- by Eddins and the orchestra.

In an attempt to make this season more listener-friendly, the conductors are initiating cozy chats with the audience between pieces. Perhaps some music needs explanation, but for these highly accessible works, no explanation was necessary. Audience members who find this sort of thing annoying, distracting and pandering will lament the good old days -- when conductors were seen and not heard.


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