May 27, 2007

Nashville Symphony Orchestra – Schermerhorn Center 5/18/07

Puts: “…this noble company” (Processional for Orchestra)
Haydn: Symphony No.103 in E-Flat Major “Drumroll”
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra

Alasdair Neal, conductor

I had been looking forward to hearing the Nashville Symphony Orchestra perform in the new Schermerhorn Center ever since the hall was finally completed last year, and especially after seeing the Phillip Glass Ensemble perform there in February. Oh, how I wanted to experience acoustic music in that space! The Schermerhorn is truly a world-class concert hall by any measure. It amazes me that such a thing could be built in the 21st Century in Nashville, Tennessee (of all places). But, the question remains, what sort of music is going to be performed in this magnificent concert hall?

It was a gorgeous evening for a walk across Broadway; we had plenty of time for a drink in the Romanesque courtyard bar and to explore the building. The gift shop prominently featured a Kenneth Schermerhorn bobble-head that I was mightily tempted to buy, but I managed to resist (this time).

I may be a radical modernist agitator when it comes to music, but I am somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to architecture. I can’t help but love the fact that the Schermerhorn Center appears to have existed for centuries. Much like the beautiful Nashville Public Library a few blocks way, the Schermerhorn effectively utilizes a timeless classicism to ennoble the public’s participation in the city’s cultural life. It’s enough to make a cynic like myself well up with civic pride.

Our seats were in the front row, center of the balcony: an ideal position from which to measure the full acoustic and view the entire orchestra. I was sadly disappointed to see so many empty seats - was it the Bartok? Does 20th Century Music always drive away the audience? Alas, maybe, yes. But, to be fair, there was a lot of other stuff going on downtown that night, and I suspect perhaps many subscribers didn’t want to deal with the traffic and parking hassles.

Interestingly, the New Yorker’s Alex Ross had attended the previous night’s performance. As I’ve previously stated, Alex Ross is an extremely insightful writer on music and it was exciting that such an eminence grise would be in attendance - would his presence spark a particularly inspired performance? Since I wasn’t there, I don’t know. I look forward to his forthcoming review. But the night after was a decidedly mixed bag.

The “Processional” by Kevin Puts was a six-minute trifle. It satisfied itself with pleasant enough sonorities but, as Lizzy remarked: “It sounded like movie music.” That about sums it up.

As for the Haydn… well, yes, I am known for a certain, um, antipathy towards the Mozart/Haydn/Beethoven axis that dominates the crabbed and restricted repertoire, but, I really have been trying to get just over it and appreciate that music for what it is (or was, anyway). I’m determined not to pre-judge a performance just because the music doesn’t conform to my (very particular) tastes and preferences. Sadly, this version of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 did nothing but confirm my worst prejudices. It was a thoroughly listless performance - the music never even attempted to get off the ground. Vague rhythms, shaky intonation, and overdrawn dynamics only served to magnify the overall malaise. Between the third and last movements, I overheard someone behind us remark, “they’re just getting warmed up.” “Let’s hope so,” I thought. At Intermission, I hit the bar and hung out on the terrace overlooking the twinkling lights of downtown Nashville. OK, whatever - this really is a beautiful facility.

Not surprisingly, many people made a hasty exit before that awful 20th Century Music started up. Of course, we had come especially to hear the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, and we were – thankfully - not disappointed. The orchestra seemed to have woken up and guest conductor Alaisdar Neal did his best to stir up some drama and excitement. The woodwinds, brass, and percussion were impeccable, and the Concerto is full of rich orchestration that is clearly a lot of fun for the musicians. Despite the sensuous sound quality, I do have to admit that the strings sounded a little bit diffuse and the trumpets and trombones at full blast easily drowned out the rest of the orchestra. Some people have suggested that the hall is maybe a little too reverberant and “bright,” and this may be true. Nevertheless, when the percussionist gently tapped a triangle, the shimmering sound hovered in a three-dimensional space like a radiant star in twilight. That brief, simple moment was perhaps the highlight of the evening. It was… magical, something that could not possibly be captured on a record. Whatever imbalances I observed are easily correctable.

I am hopeful that once the Nashville Symphony has selected a full-time music director and conductor, the orchestra will begin to fulfill its true potential. In the meantime, next season offers more guest conductors and more middle-of-the-road repertoire. However, a series of concerts dedicated to living composer John Corigliano will be a welcome dose of (post)modernism (November 29-December1 and February 28-March 1) and Yundi Li will be playing the ravishing Ravel Piano Concerto (Feb.7-9). Kudos belong to interim music director (and legendary advocate for contemporary music) Leonard Slatkin for providing a modicum of vision during this exciting (but difficult) period of transition.

I’d also love to see the Schermerhorn become a destination venue for national and international musicians. The hall lends itself to all kinds of ensembles from chamber music to choral/orchestral spectaculars. In fact, violinist Gil Shaham will be playing a solo recital with his sister, pianist Orli Shahm on February 17 and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with Murray Perahia will perform on April 6. More like this, please.



Anonymous said...

I know this is late, but I just stumbled upon your comments and thought I'd respond. By way of intro, I sing with the Symphony Chorus and am a proud holder of a half-season ticket to one of those neat armchairs in the East Balcony, about two thirds of the way forward; I was present at the same performance you were. Like you, I came for the Bartok [It wasn't in my season package], and generally loved it, although I was a bit underwhelmed with the conducting [The brass choir section of the "game of pairs," which to my mind should be langorous and pensive in contrast to the relentless drum tap, instead followed it]. The guy on the podium makes a huge difference with this orchestra; watching Slatkin from my choral seat at the Gala, and again this past Thursday, has been a revelation.

But I am a bit puzzled by your complaint that programming is too "middle of the road." A season with at least one new work on *every* program was hardly that. And if ". . . This Noble Company" struck you as movie music [I kinda liked it], there's been much edgier stuff on the agenda. You should have heard "Deus ex Machina" at the end of May--a piece that got an utterly unexpected [by me]thunderous ovation. And even the older works could be pretty spiky, e.g. the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 in November. I think the NSO is doing its programming right--hanging on to its traditional audience while slowly stretching their ears. I, too, was at the Philip Glass Ensemble in February [having sung his "Passion of Ramakrishna" the previous two nights--late Glass is probably too conservative for your taste], and was impressed at youngness and hipness of the crowd. You guys should come more often, and give the NSO a chance to play to you *and* the traditional crowd. Give it time--it's working. David Carlton

Rodger Coleman said...

Mr. Carlton,

Thank you for your comments and welcome to my humble blog.

Yes, the NSO should be applauded for programming contemporary music along with the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. So, "middle of the road" may be a bit too harsh but, clearly this is a time of transition for the orchestra and I think the programming reflects this. I do look forward to what will result from this period of transition.