Review: ASO’s Elisabeth Remy Johnson performs with Emory’s orchestra

While Paul Bhasin has enjoyed considerable publicity in light of his appointment as conductor and musical director of the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra, it was his primary haunt with the Emory University Symphony Orchestra that demanded attention on Saturday. The well-attended event, held in the Emerson Concert Hall at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, showcased a set of works by English composer Edward Elgar along with the world premiere of Second Sight by Laura Schwendinger. And it featured the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Elisabeth Remy Johnson on harp.

For their opening salvo, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, op.47, the Emory University Symphony Orchestra was joined by the Vega Quartet, Emory’s own artist-in-residence. It was a spirited if somewhat imbalanced affair with the Vega Quartet maintaining a refined elegance while the orchestra itself seemed a touch overly enthusiastic. The Emory symphony is a student orchestra and may well have just been too lost in youthful frivolity and the tactlessness it often begets. The result was a piece that was played impeccably from a technical standpoint but lacked the finesse of more seasoned players.

The evening’s second work, the world premiere of Schwendinger’s Second Sight, was a piece centered around the harp — a promising development for lovers of the instrument. 

While Johnson’s performance on the harp was impeccable, the piece itself left much to be desired. Like so many avant-garde works, it eschews melodic development for something else — a kind of tense, throbbing sonic tableau that never seems to really go anywhere. Instead of being carried away on the wings of a captivating melody or at the very least cycled through a hypnotic chord progression ala Philip Glass, the listener instead was lifted a few feet in the air, made to experience a mild panic attack, and dropped unceremoniously back on the ground.

Works like Second Sight are essentially the auditory equivalent of abstract paintings — the Modernist may appreciate the color gradient or the bold textural contrasts but the Romantic will still be asking “what exactly am I looking at?”

None of that is to say that Schwendinger’s work was wholly without merit. There were some truly interesting and even innovative ideas layered into the sonic texturing — particularly the manner in which the bowed percussion seemed to capture the overtones of the woodwinds and carry them off in ethereal directions. Such intricate and challenging touches make for interesting listening regardless of context but the work as a whole just fails to be more than the sum of its parts. Schwendinger certainly has an answer for how she does what she does, now she just needs a composition that answers the questions of what and why. 

The third and final work of the evening , another work by Elgar, was easily the crowd favorite. His Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36, “Enigma,” was full of life and, mercifully, melody. The students seemed more at home on this one and flowed in and out of one lush passage after another with an up-tempo sense of passion that still stayed within the prescribed limits of the music itself. Bhasin himself seemed more energetic as well — so much so that he inadvertently lost his grip on the baton and sent it soaring out into the audience, where it was quickly located by a spectator — the classical music equivalent of catching a foul ball in the stands.

All in all, the evening was a robust showing for the Emory orchestra and one that serves to elevate their presence out of the erudite halls of academia and into the realm of real artistic accomplishment. They still have much to learn but that’s what they’re there to do.


Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.