Atlanta Symphony’s multi-talented Music Director Robert Spano is also a gifted pianist, a role he will assume at Jordan Hall with New England String Orchestra on December 5 in the Bach D Major Concerto, BWV 1054. Other pieces in the program are Idyla for Strings by Leos Janacek, Soul Garden by Derek Bermel with solo violist Nadia Sirota, and the string orchestra version of the Beethoven String Quartet in C minor op. 18, no. 4.
Spano’s connections with the Boston music scene and NESO’s Music Director Federico Cortese are many. The two met at Tanglewood in 1995, when Spano was a young faculty member and Cortese, a Tanglewood Fellow. (Spano served as head of the Conducting Fellowship Program at the Tanglewood Music Center from 1998-2002, then as Director of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music in 2003 and 2004.) Both were assistant conductors under BSO’s Music Director Emeritus, Seiji Ozawa. When Spano was appointed Music Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1996, Cortese served as his assistant until 1998.
Both also are noted for innovative programming, which the upcoming NESO concert demonstrates. Commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Bermel’s Soul Garden is inspired by African-American music — jazz, blues, Rhythm and Blues, and hip-hop. Bermel notes that the solo viola resembles “a burnished alto gospel singer” and the cello “a rumbling church baritone.”
“Yes, these have a very strong flavor,” Cortese notes. “The rhythmic complexity has less to do with Stravinsky-like strict angularity than with African-American improvisation and freedom. The meter changes with about every bar. But it has a classical structure in many ways; it shows a rigorous evolution of thematic material.”
Speaking of Idyla for Strings by Janacek, Cortese joked, “His teachers liked him more than he liked them, it seems. He was not an easy guy. Idyla is one of two pieces in a row he wrote for string orchestra, when he was 23 or 24. It was very heavily influenced by Dvorak, who was present at its first performance. But there’s also the influence of popular Moravian music.” Conservative in his early years, however, Janacek composed it as a suite in the Baroque construction.
The same penchant for innovative programming is shown by Spano. He brought international attention to the Brooklyn Philharmonic with Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, John Adams’s Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, world premieres by Michael Hersch, Bright Sheng, Phillip Glass, and Christopher Theofanidis, and other New York premieres. Now in his ninth season as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Spano has enriched and expanded its repertoire to new levels of international prominence and acclaim. He also conducts in the major concert halls in North America, Europe, and Japan.
The two men are delighted to be performing together, again. And it gives Boston-area audiences an opportunity to hear Spano at the keyboard. The first performance of this concert will be on December 4 at the First Parish Congregational Church in Wakefield.