For the Atlanta Journal Constitution
By Jon Ross
Conductor Stephen Mulligan has developed quite the reputation as a surrogate maestro. At the beginning of 2018, Mulligan was pressed into action in front of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to fill in three times as a substitution for illness-stricken conductors.
Conversely, it also seems like it’s been forever since Mulligan, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor, has led the ASO in a classical series concert at Symphony Hall. While his main gig is to shepherd the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and lead the ASO during select holiday-themed concerts, it’s a welcome change of pace to see Mulligan lead the main ensemble without having to step in at the last minute.
On Thursday, in a concert of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Mulligan was in charge of his own program from the start. His advance preparation was most obvious in the exquisitely played Sibelius symphony.
As a conductor, Mulligan works in sweeping gestures; these broad, exaggerated movements communicate to the musicians exactly how he wants a certain passage performed. From the opening, mournful clarinet solo, accompanied by a subdued timpani roll, to the chilling blasts of strings whipping around gleaming horns — passages that evoked sun-dappled fields of snow on a crisp morning — Mulligan led the orchestra with a calm but expressive hand.
Sibelius’ symphony includes passages filled with silence juxtaposed with full-throated orchestral pleas. All this extreme dynamic change occurs in a kinetic work full of propulsive layers of intricate melodies. Mulligan and the ASO dexterously balanced these moving parts in an engaging and enriching performance.
Guest pianist Nikolai Lugansky emerged during the second half of the program to dazzle the audience with Rachmaninoff’s virtuosic piano concerto. Last heard on the ASO stage in a 2016 performance by pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who is also featured on an ASO recording of the concerto, the Rachmaninoff piece is replete with solo piano fireworks and finger-tangling sequences of notes that require technical precision and more than a little showmanship. Lugansky didn’t disappoint.
Occasionally, the pianist flirted with pushing the tempo by gliding through a few babbling-brook runs with lightning speed, while the orchestra also drowned out his playing in spots. But in the end, Lugansky’s energetic playing and faultless technique earned an intense, prolonged ovation from the Valentine’s Day crowd.
Although classical musicians read from printed music and and it’s perceived that the players lack interpretive musical freedom, myriad factors make each concert wholly unique. These shifts start with the conductor, as every conductor has his or her own beliefs about how the music should be performed. And while it’s sometimes difficult to hear these changes in approach, ASO guest conductors routinely invite the audience to hear well-worn classics with new ears. Mulligan is no different. The assistant conductor arrived at the ASO in the summer of 2017, and two years later, it’s wonderful to continue to hear his perspective on hallmarks of the classical repertoire.