For the Atlanta Journal Constitution
By Jon Ross
Pianist Jorge Federico Osorio began his study of Beethoven’s piano concertos Jan. 25 with an ending. His masterful performance of the fifth and final concerto, “Emperor,” kicked his residency off with a bang. Osorio returned to Symphony Hall Thursday to pick up in the middle.
By the time the night was over, his thoughtful, enchanting performance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven’s second and third piano concertos ended up as a secondary storyline to inner-ASO workings, both on- and offstage.
This week’s concerts mark the end of principal cellist Christopher Rex’s nearly 40-year tenure with the orchestra. He started his goodbye Thursday with a pre-concert chamber recital featuring concertmaster David Coucheronand pianist Julie Coucheron. Rex summed up his musical seniority during Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 5, impressing patrons who managed to show up at the hall in the midst of rush hour.
The other notable HR matter from Thursday? Music director Robert Spano’s continued recovery from bronchitis, which forced him to leave the stage during last weekend’s concerts. Assistant conductor Stephen Mulligan gamely filled in at the last minute on Saturday, and he has returned this week. Mulligan is normally in charge of the Atlanta Youth Symphony; this marked only his second chance to lead the ASO (and his first with proper rehearsal time).
Mulligan excelled in his pinch-hitting role, leading the ASO through proper readings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 and the two concertos. While Mulligan lacks the conducting intensity of Spano, he nonetheless molded an ensemble capable of alternately rendering bits of blistering Beethoven intensity and serving as a considerate but strong accompanist to Osorio.
Beethoven’s second and third piano concertos are packed with voluble piano runs, and Osorio played like a man who’s had the notes under his fingers for decades but can still find the breathtaking musicality at the heart of the works. These concertos also make extensive use of the orchestra. The ensemble is more than just a bystander to piano solos; it opens each concerto with significant introductory music, establishing tone and thematic content.
The evening’s intense look at earlier Beethoven works — his first symphony was published at 30, the second piano concerto arrived five years earlier — brought the ASO’s magnificent woodwind section to the fore. Extended passages led by principal flute Christina Smith and principal clarinet Laura Ardan supplied the music with an earthy richness, with the bassoon of principal Andrew Bradyfilling out the low end.
Bassist Michael Kurth, who has become the ensemble’s oft-programmed composer-in-residence, contributed to the start of the evening with an unscheduled addition. Under the guise of celebrating the birthdays of Rex and Mulligan, the ASO performed Kurth’s zany reimagining of “Happy Birthday to You,” replete with musical snippets from Beethoven symphonies. The piece had been performed only in rehearsal, as a surprise gift to the late bassist Jane Little, and the group rolled it out to mark Rex’s departure and the symphony’s continued celebration of all things Beethoven. Kicking things off with a bit of musical levity surely calmed new-conductor jitters, but there was no need to worry: With Mulligan, the ASO is in capable hands.