Friday, 18 May 2007—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Review of Atlanta Symphony Subscription Concert
By Pierre Ruhe

Give ASO Conductor's Ear for Detail a Listen



More than any conductor heard this season in Symphony Hall, Laura Jackson has an ear for detail.

Thursday evening the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's assistant conductor delivered a thrilling performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4. Her conception of this familiar music revealed all the important elements and left nothing out. It bristled with life while creating a compact, clenched-fist sense of logic and purpose.

Despite this determination, or because of it, Jackson didn't coax a warm sound from the ASO. The strings sounded especially steely. But she had the musicians playing on full alert, which, of course, kept the audience rapt and, at the end, roaring its approval.

Jackson, now in her late 30s, came to the ASO three years ago as part of a national conducting fellowship program. Her term with the ASO expires after this summer's concerts. (She has yet to announce her future employment, although she is already booked on next season's ASO calendar as a guest conductor.)

In each movement of the Brahms, she delivered a massive payoff. She expertly weighed the counterpoint, held back the crescendos just long enough to make the climaxes seem inevitable, and -- an impossible combination -- let the bittersweet lyricism flow with both charm and angst.

And yet Jackson seems an ego-free maestra. A petite woman of crisp, well-rehearsed gestures, her Brahms was of the "objective" school. You felt the performance was the printed score come to life rather than one woman's impassioned take on Brahms in E minor.

Her conducting of four excerpts from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet," which opened the concert, revealed where the conductor spent her rehearsal time: with the Brahms.

Here, too, the details were exceptionally clear, with a hard-to-hear clarinet twitter lifted to prominence, or a bassoon line given space to blossom. Her Prokofiev felt stiff and metronomic, however, lacking suppleness and theatricality.

It's true that dancers might prefer Jackson's inflexible rhythmic approach as accompaniment, since the taut predictability makes their job easier. But in the concert hall, it is the conductor's job to make us imagine the dancers' movements via music alone.

Ralph Jones, who has played double bass in the ASO since 1970, took center stage for the local premiere of John Harbison's "Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra."

Harbison is a Boston composer with old Atlanta connections. His most famous work is "The Great Gatsby," which opened in 1999 at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera's stand-alone overture was dedicated to (and premiered by) Robert Shaw and the ASO.

The "Concerto for Bass Viol" was first heard in Toronto a year ago. The ASO was one of 14 co-commissioners.

Unfortunately, Jones wasn't prepared for the task. Using amplification, with his nose buried in the music on the stand in front of him, Jones didn't play ideally in tune. He seemed to scramble to play his own notes and rarely found connections with his colleagues in the orchestra.

Jackson and the ASO, for their part, delivered a neat and clean reading.

Copyright 2007 Atlanta-Journal Constitution