There was a joyful reunion of audience and performer Thursday night as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra played its long-delayed first concert of the new season to an ecstatic sold-out crowd.
Seventeen-hundred fans of the ASO stood and cheered as the orchestra made what they call a “European entrance,” all the musicians taking the stage at the same time and launching immediately into a lusty version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Before music director Robert Spano could continue into the planned Mozart, he was interrupted by two more standing ovations, the first triggered by an audience member shouting “Welcome back!” just before Spano lifted his baton.
Spano brought the orchestra to its feet to take a bow. And in the brief silence following that outburst, another voice shouted, “We love you Robert!” Another roar. Another standing ovation. Spano blew a kiss.
“Do you think they feel the love?” ASO fan Nancy Field deadpanned. “This,” she added, “is a very appreciative audience.”
The evening was fittingly capped by the incomparable ASO chorus joining the symphony for the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.”
Field’s husband Michael Schulder said the choice of the Beethoven was symbolic, because the joy of the Schiller poem that inspired the composer was tempered by Beethoven’s rage at losing his hearing.
Certainly the weeks leading up to Thursday’s concert were angry times.
For the second time in two years the ASO musicians had been locked out during contract negotiations. Worse, this year’s debacle resulted in the cancellation of eight concerts. Both parties entered a war of words.
As the weeks dragged on members of the orchestra began drifting off into freelance gigs elsewhere to help cover mortgages and other expenses.
Viola player Jessica Oudin was in Minneapolis, performing with the Minnesota Orchestra when the ASO management announced Saturday that the impasse had been bridged and the season — with very little advance warning — would begin.
Oudin had already committed to more performances with the Minnesota group, and was cooling her heels in the frozen north on Thursday night.
“It’s heartbreaking to not be there,” she said by telephone. “We were forced to do what we had to do to pay our bills and protect our families.”
The sudden decision also put stress on musicians who had less than a week to prepare. As the soloist in the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5, concert-master David Coucheron was particularly under the gun.
During the lockout, and the silence of canceled performances, bassist Michael Kurth mocked the Woodruff management in his blog, Trudgemusic, suggesting that president and CEO Virginia Hepner was happy about the money-saving strategy of putting on no concerts.
Members of the orchestra took to the streets and to social media to bring their cause to the people. They were successful at rallying support with such demonstrations as “A Deafening Silence,” in which the musicians gathered on Sept. 25 — what would have been opening night — to stand in mute silence outside the arts center.
Even Beethoven could have heard that message.
But in the hours leading up to Thursday’s concert, Kurth said it was time to mend fences. “I don’t think there’s any place for hostility tonight,” he said. “Looking forward, we seem to be on the same page now, with the same hopes and expectations about the future of the orchestra. But there will be vigilance.”
Long-time supporters of the symphony seemed transported by the evening’s performance. “I think that Beethoven and Mozart will be smiling,” said Lois Reitzes, whose daily classical music show on WABE-FM radio has been a prominent forum for the orchestra’s music. “It’s like a dark heavy veil has been lifted.”
The challenges of the evening seemed to bring out the best in the performers, including Coucheron. During intermission audience member Robert Wenger told anyone who would listen, “That’s the best I’ve ever heard David play. He rose to the occasion.”
At the end of the evening, after the echoes of “Ode to Joy” had faded, violinist Ruth Little stood with her family and friends in the lobby of the arts center and beamed. She and Coucheron were among the last to leave.
Both were thrilled by the reception.
The cheers from the ASO’s army of followers was overwhelming, said Little. “Just to feel that visceral support is so gratifying.”
Said Coucheron, “I felt like a rock star!”