Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mahler's Symphony no. 6 in A minor at the ASO, 4/23

I just returned home from a mind-boggling Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performance of Mahler's sixth symphony, conducted by Donald Runnicles. Mahler is a specialty of Runnicles' -- in fact, he wrote his university thesis on the sixth symphony way back in the day. Tonight's performance was nuanced, energetic, and imbued with the conductor's deep knowledge of the work.

When Runnicles took the stage, he turned to the audience instead of the orchestra. Holding a microphone at his chest, the maestro gave a brief background on the piece and proceeded to sketch out for the audience a road map of what was to come. He spoke about structure, singled out important motives, which the orchestra demonstrated, and summarized the feel of each movement. Mahler believed that a symphony should be like the world, Runnicles told the crowd: it must encompass everything.

As soon as Runnicles turned back to the orchestra, he immediately launched into the first of four movements. The piece is unrelenting, in the best way possible, and lasts more than 80 minutes. Dynamics ebb and flow, tonalities shift, but the energy level tonight never wavered. It would be hard to describe it any better than Mahler himself did: this symphony has everything.

The piece seemed to bring out the best in the musicians as well, all 106 of them. Generally, a piece calling for eight french horns would have me worried, but tonight principal horn Brice Andrus assuaged my horn fears by playing with more lyricism than I have ever heard from him. Oboe wunderkind Liz Koch also gave a commendable performance. I should say that for most everyone on stage this evening -- I'm not sure I've heard them play this well in a while. Of course, it helps when they're performing a piece as masterful and awesome as this one.

Unfortunately for people who already have plans tomorrow night, this is a short run of two performances only. It's always a privilege to see Runnicles conduct when he is in town, and this concert is especially not to be missed. The ASO will reprise the concert tomorrow night at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Neko Case at Variety Playhouse, 4/2

Neko Case is apparently a hot ticket among scalpers these days. After I put up a craigslist ad in search of a pair of tickets to the show at Variety Playhouse, some friendly ticket brokers emailed (under the guise of normal people) to direct me to eBay, where tickets could be had starting at prices three times the face value. Eventually, I finagled my way into some seats, bought direct from the Variety box office. This is a good thing, because if I'd payed $95 to see this show, I probably would have been pissed.

As it happened, $25 was a pretty fair ticket price. I had seen Neko twice before, but always in the context of The New Pornographers. Her last solo release before this newest one, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood," has been on steady rotation in my stereo and on my iPod (great party background music, great roadtrip singalong, etc.) for the past two years, and so far I've really enjoyed the bulk of "Middle Cyclone," so I expected good things. Good I got, just not anything great, or even particularly memorable.

On the one hand, it was nice to be at a show that was so lo-fi and laid-back. We stood on the floor in front of the stage and it felt quite intimate, as if we were at a '90s coffeehouse open mic gig, even though the venue holds a couple thousand people. On the other hand, this was only the second show out of the gate for Neko and her band, so they were definitely still working out some kinks.

The songs came off pretty much as they do on the recording. The only bonuses of the live-and-in-person version were some stage patter between songs (unfortunately dominated by Neko's talkative backup singer, who apparently had some ATL ties), some cool videos projected on the scrim, and getting to see Neko strum a guitar with the volume turned all the way down. Neko's foghorn of a voice was in excellent form, though -- the most exciting point of the concert came during "This tornado loves you," when she howled, "what will make you believe me?"

The next day, I put on "Middle Cyclone" in my car and enjoyed it just about as much as I had the live version the night before. It was a good show, but it wasn't great -- and it definitely wasn't a must-see. I love me some Neko Case, but if I'm gonna see her live in the future, she had better have the rest of the New Pornographers gang in tow.