If all's well that ends well, you could say conductor Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra did all right last night at the Kennedy Center. The final work on their program was Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, which ends in an irresistibly joyful tumult. The ensemble sound and balance of timbres suffered just a bit in the final scramble up to that great climax, but it didn't really matter; pandemonium was on the agenda, and anyone who looks for neatness in pandemonium is looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place.
Shaw and his orchestra have been the subject of some controversy lately, after winning four Grammys in this year's National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences extravaganza. Perhaps the balloting was tilted by the fact that Atlanta has an unusually large and vigorous NARAS chapter, and of course we all know that classical Grammys are meaningless. But the Berlioz Requiem, which won three of Atlanta's four prizes, was an outstanding performance; Shaw is one of the great choral conductors of our time, tenor John Aler's award was richly earned by a unique performing artist; and Telarc's Jack Renner outdid himself in the digital recording of this massive, complex piece.
This doesn't mean that Atlanta is a world-class orchestra. It is certainly not on a par with Chicago, which usually dominates the Grammys, and last night it sometimes sounded a notch or two below the National Symphony. But Shaw has brought it a long way and it now ranks among the Pretty Good American Orchestras, a highly honorable category I have just invented.
Its primary weakness is that it doesn't make difficult things sound easy, as the Chicago and Philadelphia orchestras do; the phrasing tends to get a bit square and the sound production a bit labored in weighty statements. This orchestra is at its best in sections where the music calls for swift pace and bright, rapidly changing colors. In this, it resembles most other American orchestras that are worth hearing.
The Atlanta Symphony was eminently worth hearing in Ned Rorem's String Symphony, a brilliantly inventive piece commissioned by the orchestra a few years ago. Rorem demonstrates, not for the first time, that there is still a lot of vitality in traditional forms and styles when they are in the hands of a master. His play with textures in this work is dazzling, his rhythmic resourcefulness is captivating, and above all he enriches the music with melodies that are attractive at first hearing and later become haunting. Melodic fluency has been much criticized in the last generation or two by those who happen to lack it -- but in this work it supplies eloquent arguments in its own defense.
Misha Dichter was the soloist in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. If a concerto is, as theorists sometimes say, a contest between soloist and orchestra, Dichter won.