By Susan Kemp
Sometimes it’s hard to remember after 11 days of blues, jazz and classical music vibrating from all corners of Savannah’s Historic District, that Savannah’s emphasis on the arts is becoming a growing anomaly. It’s been a year where national and state budgets have tightened arts funding to their limits, which can especially be seen in Michigan, where the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has been on strike for the last six months.
That alone makes the opportunity to walk into a packed crowd at Lucas Theatre for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s sixth visit to the Savannah Music Festival something worth seeking out.
I’d posit that the real reason to emphasize funding nonprofits like local symphonies and prioritize arts education in the schools is because art allows us to feel—to experience the world in a way that one might not otherwise.
It has been a while since I’ve experienced anything like Sunday’s performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
The orchestra, led by guest conductor Roberto Abbado, opened with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. Instead of kicking off the show with a lot of bravado, Brahms’ concerto showcased the orchestra’s restraint and unity. The violins played a quick, disjointed melody, but the notes were so soft and precise that it felt anything but anxious. The cellos played under the violins, softly plucking the harmony.
The concerto emphasized the orchestra’s ability to rise and fall as one voice, as the soft melody would repeatedly crescendo into a louder, mid-tempo phrase before falling back down again. It’s even more impressive to see live, where the violinist’s bow rests like a fragile piece of glass glazing over the strings with each quick pluck. The audience can watch knowing that pushing just a tiny bit further would cause a crash instead of a hum.
When musicians can perform in such a way that all the minuscule components aren’t distracting—when we don’t feel the strain, when we don’t have to fight to find the focal point in the melody—then audience members are able to let their minds wander. And unlike math class or church, it’s perfectly permissible, even desirable.
It’s refreshing in today’s fast-paced culture to remember that our thoughts can take us somewhere nostalgic, and be more than just a constant nagging sensation of responsibilities and agendas.
That is not to say that all music should aim to calm us. Some music is violent and emotive, and to this end the audience was treated to Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op.26 with the violin solo performed by Daniel Hope.
Hope opened with an intensity unparalleled in the previous piece. He and the orchestra played back and forth, the violin part dragging out much longer notes than before. The tone shifted to something much more melancholy, even haunting as the solo reached its higher octaves but maintained the same strength. The orchestra responded to each violin part with the big bravado sound that I expected to see in the opening number.
Bruch’s concerto showed music’s ability to tell a story and yank human emotion around, seemingly at will. It felt reminiscent to a chase, where the cellos and basses thumped deep footsteps right behind the violins and violas frantically run ahead. Every few measures, the woodwinds came in with the flutes playing falling scales, creating a moment of relief before the horns chimed a deep reminder that the chase isn’t over yet and the whole frenzied race begins again.
The narrative is less important than the experience of seeing music live. A sort of synesthesia takes place when musicians get it right, and this year’s performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra definitely did. The vibrations in a concerto such as this one, can be felt with the body, not just the ear.Contact Susan Kemp.