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Music Review: Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra – Transmigration

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Transmigration is a series of orchestral compositions which are performed by a well known group. Robert Spano is famous, and correctly so. He was born in 1961 into a musical family and grew-up playing instruments such as the flute, violin, and piano.  After graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Spano conducted in many venues until being employed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

This is his eighth year as the ASO conductor, and Spano has already been lauded in the press for his strength in leading the team of musicians to take on several creative pieces and put them on a scale of international merit.

Within their latest CD, Spano and the ASO take on the subject of death and all its facets. Five unique selections go through the journey for both those who pass on from this life to their next and the ones left behind. 

Samuel Barber is responsible for "Adagio for Strings", which is exactly what it sounds like. This work is likely to be the selection when someone of great public importance has died. Although the name might not be familiar to some, perhaps the occasion is. When it was announced that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died from polio, Barber's music could be heard playing on the radio.

From the soft opening notes, one is prone to feel a tugging at the heartstrings. I have to mention they are so quiet that hearing them is a bit on the tricky side. After a while, it does improve. The thump thump of the cello suggests something interesting is on its way. This sets the tone for some haunting overtones. If feeling melancholy is the intention, Barber has succeeded.

"Elegy", composed by John Corigliano, is a nice piece. It is loosely based on an of Broadway show about Helen of Troy. A flute trilling calls those who hear to a solid attention. I am reminded of a soft light which shines throughout a filed, perhaps not unlike a sunrise. Considering this is a reflection of dying, Corigliano can easily suggest a life has been extinguished far too soon. The horn blowing says the person is about to leave Earth and rise to heaven. I enjoyed the crash of drums – it's sign of not forgetting the impact the person made. At its peak are two double forte (extra loud) climaxes for a full orchestra.

Samuel Barber has another work on this CD – "Agnus Dei". The sweet sounds might best be described as coming from angels. I have to wonder if these could be interpreted as recently departed souls who are now guardian angels for the survivors left behind. An attempt at comforting, maybe? The familiar Latin prayer is set to music in a choral setting.

"On the Transmigration of Souls", put together by John Adams, was created at a particularly poignant time in our nation's history. During the aftermath of the events of September 11,2001, the memories were so fresh in people's minds that a special bit of music was needed. Comprising the text is some randomly chosen names of the victims, quotes from missing persons signs, and personal reminiscences. This is probably the most haunting of all the selections, with bells ringing out and quickly rising to a crescendo. A strong message of remembering sails through the air.

Jennifer Higdon is responsible for "Dooryard Bloom". Higdon first premiered in 2002 with her Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of "Concerto for Orchestra". After the resulting rise to fame , most of her fans will probably remember her "Blue Cathedral", the piece she composed after her brother passed on.

If the title seems to ring a bell, it's because it comes out of the When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard elegy by Walt Whitman. Lilacs play a prominent theme, but so do the two organs which open the music. The baritone Nmon Ford sings lyrics which take listeners to a place of peace. Until the drum rumbles through, that is. When things calm down, a gentle harp reminds listeners of each day being a precious one.

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