Music Review: From John Adams to John Williams, the Nashville Symphony plays it all

guerreroMusic director Giancarlo Guerrero is leading the Nashville Symphony Orchestra this weekend in a concert that expertly balances the bold and new with the tried and true.

The daring part of the program, performed Thursday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, consists of contemporary American composer John Adams’ City Noir, a wondrous and complex work of shimmering strangeness for large orchestra. George Gershwin’s evergreen crowd-pleaser An American in Paris makes up the familiar part of the program, while Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia and John Williams’ Escapades round it off with intimacy and lyrical appeal.

Jazz is the common denominator in much of this music. Adams says he found inspiration for his 35-minute-long, three-movement symphony in American historian Kevin Starr’s multi-volume history of California, in particular a chapter called “Black Delilah.” This was the California of the 1940s and ‘50s, a sultry age of jazz orchestras and film noir. Adams evokes the era with a pulsating, luminous soundscape that freely mixes abstract modernism with jazz.  Indeed, throughout the piece, saxophonist Timothy McAllister stands up to play his solos, like a horn player in a swinging big band.

The music is typical of Adams’ symphonic style. In the first movement, titled “The City and Its Double,” swirling winds and glistening strings give the impression of the entire orchestra being strummed. The second movement, “The Song Is For You,” features melancholic saxophone melodies against a prismatic symphonic backdrop. The finale, “Boulevard Night,” is a frenzied tribute to Hollywood Boulevard.

Guerrero and the NSO have been fine-tuning their John Adams chops – in recent seasons they have performed other large-scale Adams pieces such as Dr. Atomic Symphony and Harmonielehre – and on Thursday they nailed City Noir. The orchestra navigated Adams’ complex minefield of asymmetrical rhythms with seeming ease, playing restless shards of melody with clarity and precision. McAllister and trumpeter Jeffrey Bailey deserve special mention for their vibrant solos.

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis joined the orchestra as soloist in Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia and Williams’ Escapades. The Fantasia came across as an all-too-brief, three-movement concerto, complete with a sort of sensuous Brazilian nocturne in the second movement and a lilting, effervescent finale. Marsalis gave a memorable performance, playing soprano saxophone with effortless virtuosity and spontaneity. He switched to alto saxophone for Williams’ Escapades, a concert piece drawn from the soundtrack for Catch Me If You Can. Marsalis played this music with expressiveness and easy-going lyricism. His deeply felt performances earned a rousing ovation, which elicited an equally affecting encore, a performance of Marsalis’ own “The Bard Lachrymose” for saxophone and orchestra.

Guerrero and the NSO closed Thursday’s concert with an old friend – Gershwin’s An American in Paris. This jazzy tone poem, which comes complete with Tin Pan Alley-like melodies, Charleston dance rhythms and honking taxi horns, is a perfect synthesis of pop music immediacy and symphonic grandeur. Guerrero and his players captured the spirit of the music with a bracing, energetic and vibrant reading. Gershwin fans would do well to promenade down the boulevard and catch one of this weekend’s repeat performances.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony Orchestra performs John Adams’ City Noir, Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia, Williams’ Escapades and Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, May 16 and Saturday, May 17 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $143 and are available at the Schermerhorn box office, online or by calling 687-6400.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.