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ASO, Spano raise power of Beethoven at Ebenezer

National Black Arts Festival

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Sunday at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ludwig van Beethoven, a world and more than a century apart, shared a hunger for many things -- justice, moral courage, human rights, brotherly harmony.

So the vibe felt right Sunday at Ebenezer Baptist Church's Horizon Sanctuary when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed the composer's music in the minister's home church. As part of Atlanta's National Black Arts Festival, it's the fifth year the ASO has given a free concert at Ebenezer.

For the orchestra, context matters. The ASO and conductor Robert Spano had played Beethoven's "Fidelio" Overture and Symphony No. 7 Saturday night in Symphony Hall, a low energy and somewhat out-of-focus outing.

They repeated the music at Ebenezer, only this time the performance came to life with high drama and a tangible sense of purpose. Many in the racially and ethnically diverse crowd Sunday were likely hearing the ASO for the first time. The sanctuary's acoustics, too, are more ringing and true, and with richer bass, than Symphony Hall's. The impact and intimacy were at times overwhelming.

Probably to help the musicians cope with this different acoustic, Spano led the Seventh Symphony in firm strokes and slowish tempos. Given the occasion and the power of Beethoven's most balanced and "heroic" score, Spano's reading held the gravitas and rhetorical force of, well, a great preacher on a mission to improve the world, or at least the part of it that hears and responds to his (musical) voice.

As in past years, the festival and ASO team up in this concert with the Sphinx Organization, a Michigan-based nonprofit devoted to fostering young African-American and Latino musicians. Sphinx's most high-profile event is an annual competition. In between Beethoven, two recent Sphinx winners played solos with the orchestra.

Violist Juan Miguel Hernandez, born in Canada in 1985, played the final two movements from Carl Stamitz's D Major Viola Concerto, rooted in the same musical vocabulary as Mozart's, but also pointing toward the Italianate comic-opera sensibility of Rossini. Elegant, delightful stuff. Hernandez played with understated virtuosity -- tender, lyrical and loaded with personality.

He was followed by a local favorite, Eric Thompson, a double bassist from Decatur. A recent graduate of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, arguably the best music school in the country, Thompson's youth was wrapped up in an ASO initiative called the Talent Development Program, with similar goals as Sphinx. The bass player -- who here played Bruch's solemn "Kol Nidrei" -- is the Talent Development Program's best hope yet of landing a graduate in a professional orchestra.

PIERRE RUHE, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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