Classical review: Guerrero leads NSO in Beethoven’s Fifth

GiancarloWhat was the secret of Beethoven’s genius? Leonard Bernstein believed it was the composer’s extraordinary intuition, his uncanny sense of always knowing what note should come next. Beethoven, it seems, wrote with inevitability.

As fate would have it, Beethoven’s best-known work is anchoring the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s concert series this weekend at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Music director Giancarlo Guerrero led the NSO in a bracing rendition of the composer’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 on Thursday night. The program, which repeats Friday and Saturday, also includes the music of Haydn and of contemporary American composer Stephen Paulus.

beethovenGuerrero launched full throttle into the Fifth Symphony’s opening motif, making the familiar three G’s and an E-flat seem almost like unexpected hammer blows. There was a lot of dark and dramatic tension in this reading. Moreover, Guerrero seemed to understand implicitly that the first movement should not flow smoothly. So he underscored the music’s rhythmic fits and starts, which added beautifully to our sense of unease.

In contrast, the ensuing “Andante,” an elaborate theme and variations, was warm, lyrical and inviting. Guerrero’s interpretation was remarkable both for its easygoing drift and stately elegance. He milked the final, mellifluous passages for all they were worth, sculpting phrases that were sumptuous, even voluptuous. This proved to be the calm before the proverbial storm. The scherzo unfolded with relentless thrust. And there was no letup in the finale, which blazed in brilliant and emphatic C major.

Most contemporary composers would probably feel uneasy sharing a program with old Ludwig van. The odds of an unfavorable comparison are overwhelming. Paulus, a gifted and prolific Minnesota-based composer, held his own quite well next to Haydn and Beethoven.

paulusIt no doubt helped that he was represented by two of his most successful works. His Three Places of Enlightenment: Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra is an unusual piece that manages to be both unapologetically virtuosic and intimate at the same time. In the fast outer movements, the quartet functions more or less like the soloist in a concerto, playing fiery passages that engage the orchestra in a dramatic duel. In the slow movement, we hear the string quartet’s distinctive four-part blend, which gives the music a sense of quiet immediacy.

The quartet for this weekend’s performance – violinists Jun Iwasaki (taking the night off from his usual duties as concertmaster) and Carolyn Wann Bailey, violist Daniel Reinker and cellist Anthony LaMarchina – gave a masterful performance.  They engaged in elegant musical exchanges amongst themselves. And they sparred robustly with the orchestra. To his credit, Paulus gave the orchestra more to do than simply play accompaniment. It is an equal partner in the proceedings, and he provided it with colorful and dramatic music to play. Guerrero and the NSO played this music with energy and polish.

Haydn’s “Hornsignal” Symphony and Paulus’ Veil of Tears both served as warm-up pieces. The Haydn featured a small ensemble of strings, winds and horns and had the feel of chamber music, so it was a natural overture to Paulus’ String Quartet Concerto. Guerrero led the symphony as if it were chamber music, conducting without a baton, often letting the musicians make their own decisions. The players responded with an interpretation that was thoughtful and refined. Assistant concertmaster Erin Hall had some especially sweet and memorable solos.

Paulus’ Veil of Tears is a short – about four-minutes long – orchestral interlude that occurs in the middle of his extended Holocaust oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn. The piece opens with quiet unison violin notes, but the music is deceptively gentle. There is tension just beneath the surface sheen of the strings, waiting to rush forth. Guerrero and the NSO played this music from the heart, delivering a performance that was simple, immediate and deeply affecting. It created a feeling of calm, which made Beethoven’s subsequent, fateful motif seem all the more ferocious.

If you go

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Haydn’s “Hornsignal” Symphony and Stephen Paulus’ Three Places of Enlightenment and Veil of Tears. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5 and Saturday, Oct. 6 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $49 to $119. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.

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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.