On paper, this programme may look like something of a hodgepodge, but these four disparate works actually fit together extremely well. Christopher Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body has exuberant outbursts of pure diatonic splendour that are not so far removed from Copland’s ‘prairie’ harmonies, though Theofanidis’s piece is actually based on a chant by the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Indeed, Hildegard’s melody is woven so seamlessly into the score’s colourful fabric that one would likely never guess its provenance – especially given the music’s distinctly American accent.
Similarly, there appears to be a connection between Appalachian Spring and Jennifer Higdon’s luminous Blue Cathedral, as the opening chords of Higdon’s piece sound as if they had been fashioned from the same sonorities that conclude Copland’s ballet suite. And isn’t there more than a faint echo of Barber’s First Symphony, too? Compare, for example, the long oboe solo beginning around 4'50" with the opening of the Andante section of the Barber.
I’m not yet convinced that Theofanidis’s and Higdon’s works are masterpieces, attractive and well-wrought as they are, but Spano and his Atlanta orchestra certainly play them with unflagging conviction and brilliance. The Barber, too, is exceptionally well done, crackling with energy in the opening sections, and with plenty of expressive weight given to the final passacaglia. But it’s that oboe solo in the Andante – rapturously played here – that made the deepest impression. Even the oft-recorded Appalachian Spring is given a distinctive interpretation – so cleanly articulated and sharply focused that, for a few seconds at least, the presto at 12'40" (fig 37 in the pocket score) evoked a bracing, Sibelian landscape.
All told, then, this is a clever and thought-provoking mix of old and new that says as much about Spano’s programming acumen as about his rapidly-developing relationship with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.