ArtsATL Year in Review: The most notable performances and events in Atlanta music

January 3, 2014

By ArtsATL staff

Gil Shaham, left, with Robert Spano at the podium. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Though the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a reduced number of concerts last year, the quality more than made up for the quantity. And the city’s burgeoning alternative classical scene received a major boost when both Sonic Generator and Bent Frequency looked to expand their horizon to foreign destinations. Tomer Zvulun was named the new artistic director of the Atlanta Opera as the company tries to re-shape and re-build its brand.

Popular music highlights included Paul Simon’s lecture series and concert performance at Emory University, the success of the small stages at the Atlanta Jazz Festival and the Allman Brothers Band’s shimmering Memorial Day show. Here are the year’s turning points and highlights as noted by ArtsATL music writers Mark Gresham, Jon Ross, Stephanie Adrian, Scott Freeman and Brenda Stepp.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

2013 was a year of turning points and strong performances. At the top of the list in the orchestral world was introduction of the new acoustical shell at Symphony Hall. The shell made its debut in September with the kickoff of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 2013–14 season and is proving a game-changer for the orchestra. The musicians hit a high point in mid-November with Robert Spano conducting Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 featuring violinist Gil Shaham, and Orff’s “Carmina Burana” with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and guest soloists.

Other notable performances include the stunning performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 by guest pianist Inon Barnatan, who was a last-minute substitute for an indisposed Marc-André Hamelin in May. Also, two world premieres: Michael Gandolfi’s clarinet concerto, “The Nature of Light,” featuring ASO principal clarinetist Laura Ardan; and “Everything Lasts Forever” by Michael Kurth, a member of the orchestra’s contrabass section whose star as a local composer has risen steadily over the last couple of years. – MG

Opera’s Revival Path

A promising turning point for the Atlanta Opera was the arrival of Tomer Zvulun, the company’s new general and artistic director, who spoke at length from the stage just before the season-opening performance of Puccini’s “Tosca.” While his fingerprints will not fully be on the opera’s productions until next season, he spoke passionately about the importance of live opera produced and staged in Atlanta rather than “streamed in from somewhere else.” That immediately resulted in an audible gasp and rumble in the audience. Kudos to Zvulun for advocating the “made here, performed here” concept and verbally investing in the city’s own creativity. We’ll see how that plays out over the next season.

Kara Shay Thomson, Massimiliano Pisapia (front) and Luis Ledesma. (Photo by Ken Howard)

Speaking of “made here,” a too-much-overlooked event this past March was the small-budget Capitol City Opera Company’s premiere of “The Secret Agent” by Atlanta composer Curtis Bryant and New York librettist Allen Reichman, a work that was nine years in the making and Bryant’s second full-length opera. – MG

On the Contemporary Scene

Two of Atlanta’s stalwart contemporary music ensembles made steps toward their first international tours. Bent Frequency, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in May, performed Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon’s “Comala” at the Fiestas de Octubre, Guadalajara, Mexico, soon after performing it at the Rialto. Sonic Generator collaborated with members of the Orchestre national de Lorraine and its conductor, Jacques Mercier, in a concert at the Ferst Center, in an exchange that will take the ensemble to Metz, France.

Sonic Generator performing with the Orchestre national de Lorraine at the Ferst Center.  Courtesy Orchestre national de Lorraine.

Sonic Generator performing with the Orchestre national de Lorraine at the Ferst Center. Courtesy Orchestre national de Lorraine.

Also memorable, Sonic Generator performed a live score along with the full-length restoration of Fritz Lang’s iconic motion picture “Metropolis” outdoors on the Sifley Plaza at Woodruff Arts Center.

On the Chamber Scene

In chamber music, the highlight was the much-anticipated advent of the Molly Blank Jewish Concert Series at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum. Under the artistic direction of the Atlanta Opera’s music director, Arthur Fagen, the series’ inaugural concert took place on November 12 in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The recital featured mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman and pianist Götz Payer.

David Coucheron. (Photo by J.D. Scott)

Among notable Atlanta musicians: Dantes Rameau, cofounder and executive director of the Atlanta Music Project, was named to Ebony magazine’s 2013 “Power 100” list of today’s most influential African Americans. ArtsATL offered its own nod to young artists in its “30 Under 30” series of interviews, which included five musicians: violinists David Coucheron and Domenic Salerni, cellist Jennifer Humphreys, percussionist Victor Pons and electric guitarist Nick Johnson. Late in the year, pianist Paula Peace announced she would be stepping down in early 2015 as artistic managing director of Atlanta Chamber Players after leading the organization for 38 seasons.

Among the musicians who passed away in 2013 were violinist William Steck, who served as concertmaster of the ASO from 1974 to 1982, and contrabassist Ralph Jones, who joined the orchestra in 1970 and was principal contrabass from 1977 until his retirement at the end of the past season. – MG

Barton in Wales

Opera singer and Georgia native Jamie Barton represented the United States at the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in Wales this spring and did something that no woman has ever done before — brought home both the Main Prize and the Song Prize. This 30-something mezzo-soprano is turning heads wherever she goes, be it at the Metropolitan Opera or back home in Atlanta where she has given several concerts this year. In November she and pianist Bradley Moore dazzled a full house at Spivey Hall, offering a recital of Ives, Brahms, Sibelius and Elgar. – SA

Kennesaw State’s Guest Artist Series

Star power was the operative word at the Kennesaw State University School of Music this year. The Guest Artist Series, which takes place at the Dr. Bobby Bailey and Family Performance Center, featured a lineup of significant artists this fall that included violinist David Coucheron, concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and later pianist Jeremy Denk, whose recent CD release and U.S. tour playing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” has been well-received. The School of Music recently added soprano Leah Partridge, an opera singer who maintains a busy performing schedule, to its faculty and lost its opera director Russell Young when he unexpectedly passed away in early December. Young, who had taught at KSU since 2005, was also an exceptional pianist and served as an official accompanist for the Regional Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. – SA


Paul Simon at Emory

Paul Simon was certainly a unique choice to deliver the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, which are usually reserved for literary heavyweights. But Simon is a literary giant in another field of writing, namely as the author of some of the greatest songs of the 20th century. Simon’s 90-minute-plus lecture on September 22 was obviously painstakingly composed, and offered keen insights into the writing of many of his greatest songs. The one drawback was the P.A. system at the Glenn Memorial Auditorium did Simon no favors, with his voice often coming through muddled and unclear.

There were no such problems two days later at a performance at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. It was a concert unlike any Simon will likely ever give, with the air of sitting in his living room and listening to him perform his favorite songs – both his own and ones by other artists. A highlight was a rendition of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” — SF

Atlanta Jazz Festival

This year’s hit-or-miss festival in Piedmont Park introduced Atlanta audiences to phenomenal talents on the smaller of two stages. There are sure to be some lackluster acts in a program designed to appeal to everyone on a small budget, but performances on the small stage by vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant and the saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Miguel Zenon — with each artist augmented by a stellar grouping of sidemen — added a welcome depth to the weekend’s performances. Atlanta guitarist Jacob Deaton, pianist Aaron Diehl’s group and a band put together by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire provided sparks on the main stage. – JR

Chris Thile

Chris Thile

The folks at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts proved they continue to make smart, engaging programming choices by bringing in Thile for a sold-out solo concert. In one of the best shows of the year by far, Thile performed a significant chunk of his latest disc of Bach arrangements, augmenting these compositions with traditional selections and songs performed with his not-to-be-missed band, the Punch Brothers. In fact, the fall concert proved to be a nice bookend to the Punch Brothers show at Variety Playhouse last January. — JR

The Allman Brothers Band

The music of the Allman Brothers Band spans over more than four decades. They’ve been playing 45 years, to be exact, and they’ve become a Southern tradition as recognizable as blue skies and sunny days. On Memorial Day the sun prevailed over the rain, providing one of those amazing summer evenings in Atlanta.

When the Allman Brothers — Gregg Allman (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Butch Trucks (drums and tympani), Jaimoe (drums), Warren Haynes (vocals, lead and slide guitar), Derek Trucks (slide and lead guitar), Oteil Burbridge (bass) and Marc Quinones (congos and percussion) — took the stage at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, the crowd took to their feet where they remained, seemingly “electrified,” as they sang every word to every song for the entire show. The Brothers played one timeless hit after another and, somehow, managed to deliver every tune fresh. Their fans ranged from their early teens up to their ’70s. There’s something inexplicably powerful when music can transcend time and close generational gaps. The music of ABB is just such music. – BS


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