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Evaluate: Stephen Mulligan returns to the ASO for a saxophone pushed program

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continued its already dynamic and numerous 2022-23 season Thursday with a set that was as celebratory of the classics because it was open to exploring huge realms of uncharted sonic territory. That exploration got here within the type of the U.S. premiere of “Adagio (for Wadada Leo Smith),” the haunting new work for saxophone and orchestra from Tyshawn Sorey. The live performance marked the return of Stephen Mulligan, who made his mark because the ASO’s affiliate conductor for 2 years.

This system repeats Saturday evening.

The night started on a darkish and ominous notice (one that will outline the tone of the live performance as an entire) with Carl Maria Von Weber’s overture to “Der Freischütz.” The opening strains had been performed with a tough textural palette that grated gently in opposition to the nerves with a tense poise that appeared to problem the relaxed sensibilities of the evening’s live performance goers.

The Atlanta Symphony’s lush, intoxicating and listener pleasant string part is one in every of its lengthy standing hallmarks. To start with a bit that challenged these expectations from the opening bars was daring certainly.

Weber is like Johannes Brahms in his sinister, brooding model however that angst is tempered by one thing resembling the adagio stylings of Samuel Barber — that very same sense of wistful, reflective melancholy permeates all through and it’s this sentimentality that provides the ASO a window into their attention-grabbing sense of romanticism even in such a harsh piece.

All in all it was an excellent opener that afforded the orchestra a chance to showcase its vary but in addition served as a bellwether for the difficult work to come back.

Stephen Mulligan
Below Mulligan’s baton, McAlllister and the orchestra highlighted the strain and launch of Sorey’s piece for the saxophone.

The night’s lynchpin was its second piece, “Adagio (For Wanda Lee Smith),” commissioned by the Lucerne Pageant and the ASO as a part of New Music USA’s “Amplifying Voices” program. The ASO carried out Sorey’s “For Roscoe Mitchell” in 2021 and that piece appeared tense to the purpose of exhaustion. Like so many trendy classical works, it hovered within the air with this sense of existential dread however by no means really went anyplace.

The brand new piece is constructed across the saxophone, an instrument that has by no means discovered a well-liked footing within the symphonic context, and as a substitute discovered its place in jazz and Sousa marches. As such there may be an inevitable aura related to the instrument — one that’s cool, hip and defiant regardless of the composition at hand.

That aura was on full show within the palms of the night’s featured soloist, alto saxophonist Timothy McAlllister. He was snug standing with one foot in every of the usually disparate worlds of classical refinement and onerous bop intimacy.

“Adagio (For Wanda Lee Smith)” returned to the identical tense, haunting realms of Sorey’s “Roscoe Mitchell,” however this time it flat out works because of a constantly participating sense of pressure and launch. That very same “hovering” high quality continues to be there however McAllister offered that tense ambiance with a constantly evolving melody line that functioned as a hopeful, craving steadiness level between seemingly errant chordal accompaniment. Voicings that appear impossibly dense turned lush and melodious when the saxophone enters.

The story instructed in the midst of “Adagio” is, regardless of its compositional intent, the story of a mournful melodic line that struggles to interrupt freed from the harmonic despair that surrounds it. The piece reaches ever increased in direction of a distant realm of pleasure and light-weight solely to be pulled mercilessly again to earth by a dense fog of orchestral accompaniment. Sorey has affected the narration of a tragic story of hopes and happiness cruelly and majestically destroyed — the symphonic equal of a Tennessee Williams play and a real marvel to behold.

Stephen Mulligan
Mulligan earned “Superman” accolades when he was affiliate conductor.

The night’s third and ultimate piece, Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Main, Op. 43, put the highlight on visitor conductor Stephen Mulligan, who served because the ASO’s affiliate conductor from 2017 to 2019. Mulligan needed to step in as a last-minute alternative conductor thrice in six weeks in 2018, together with as soon as throughout a live performance following an intermission. When he took over for an ailing visitor conductor at a rehearsal, he was greeted by the ASO’s trombone part with the theme from the movie Superman.

As visitor conductor, Mulligan was environment friendly and efficient. His erudite, earnest method on the podium noticed him neither so constrained as to be impotent in his command of the orchestra, nor so daring as to embody the rock star swagger that makes Nathalie Stuzmann such a welcome presence.

The Sibelius work itself was efficient and largely satisfying, although it wore on properly previous its welcome. The piece is filled with profound moments all through however even profundity is topic to the regulation of diminishing returns. His second symphony, regardless of how properly realized it could be in its particular person actions, turns into a sprawling train in tedium when taken as an entire.

By the top of the evening it was clear that Sorey’s “Adagio” was going to be probably the most memorable work of the set and an enchanting musical puzzle whose depth and mystique I discover myself nonetheless considering hours after its fearsome conclusion.


Jordan Owen started writing about music professionally on the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee School of Music, he’s an expert guitarist, bandleader and composer. He’s at present the lead guitarist for the jazz group Different Strangers, the ability metallic band Axis of Empires and the melodic loss of life/thrash metallic band Century Spawn.



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