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Music Review: Nashville Symphony Chorus marks its golden anniversary with a glorious Brahms requiem

NSOchorusMusic director Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are celebrating the beauty of the human voice this weekend.

Their program, which received a memorable performance on Thursday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, includes two masterpieces of the choral repertoire – Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (“A German Requiem”). Samuel Barber’s nostalgic, melancholic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 for soprano and orchestra rounds out the program.

Brahms composed his requiem ostensibly to assuage his own grief following the deaths of his mentor, Robert Schumann, and his beloved mother. Few works in the repertoire offer as much comfort to the living – the work’s opening line, “Blessed are they that mourn,” pretty much says it all. For that reason, the piece is often performed during times of national mourning. The New York Philharmonic, for instance, played it right after 9/11.

The requiem’s place on this weekend’s program, however, has a celebratory purpose. This season marks the 50th anniversary of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and Guerrero wanted to showcase the ensemble’s ability to perform this long, complex composition with radiance, grace and effortless virtuosity. The chorus, expertly prepared by its new choral director, Kelly Corcoran, rose to the occasion.

In all seven of the requiem’s movements, the chorus sang with a sound that was luminous, beautifully blended and unfailingly sensitive. There was a distinct rhythmic vibrancy in much of their singing, especially in the fourth movement “How lovely is thy dwelling place.” The ensemble could sing with remarkable power – their fortissimo singing at the climax of the second movement “For all flesh is grass” washed over the orchestra like a sonic tsunami. They also sang with extraordinary control, performing pianissimo sections of the sixth movement “For here we have no continuing city” with quiet urgency.

Both of the soloists gave strong performances.  Baritone Stephen Powell sang “Lord, make me to know mine end” with a voice that was dark, expressive and remarkably warm. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy performed “And ye now therefore have sorrow” with a silky voice that soared effortlessly above the orchestra.

Although he stood before a huge force, Guerrero opted to conduct without a baton. His intension seemed clear: His goal wasn’t to beat time and conduct with precision, but rather to use the expressiveness of his well-taper fingers to elicit as succulent and nuanced a sound as possible. He succeeded and then some.

Murphy was also the soloist in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. She was at her best when singing in her translucent upper register. For whatever reason, her middle voice sounded a bit pinched. Guerrero and the orchestra, for their parts, brought out all of the music’s serene beauty and rustic simplicity.

Leonard Bernstein’s detractors sometimes noted that the great maestro could do anything as long as he didn’t put his mind to it. In other words, he was at his best when he composed lighter fare – works like “Candide” Overture and West Side Story – rather than pieces of such laborious high seriousness as his “Kaddish” Symphony and Mass.

In Chichester Psalms, Bernstein managed to have it both ways. He created a work of pure, jazzy theater that manages at the same time to be a serious and sensitive classical setting of biblical texts – in this case his favorite psalms, which he kept in the original Hebrew. The Nashville Symphony Chorus shined in this work, singing with joy, rhythmic vitality and dramatic urgency. Boy soprano Nolan Harvel sang with angelic beauty.

In all, it was a memorable 50th anniversary concert. The chorus, soloists and orchestra all performed superbly. One artist, however, deserves special mention. Bass Richard Hatfield has been singing with the Nashville Symphony Chorus for all of the ensemble’s 50 years. With dedicated leaders like that, it’s no wonder that Nashville has such a glorious chorus.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Orchestra and Chorus perform Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Brahms’ A German Requiem. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy also performs Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, May 30 and Saturday, May 31 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $138 and are available here

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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.