How do you fill a concert hall for a program of dauntingly difficult 20th-century music? You could pay people to come. Better still, you could enlist the help of a beloved figure of American pop culture.
Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra wisely chose the latter course on Thursday night, when they joined actor George Takei to perform composer Arnold Schoenberg’s emotionally wrenching “A Survivor from Warsaw.” This weekend’s program, which repeats Friday, Feb. 8 and Saturday, Feb. 9 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, also features Charles Ives’ sublimely beautiful “The Unanswered Question,” Dmitri Shostakovich’s hyper-dramatic Cello Concerto No. 1 (with cellist Johannes Moser) and John Adams’ minimalist masterpiece “Harmonielehre.”
Schoenberg composed “A Survivor from Warsaw” in 1947 as a tribute to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. It’s a diminutive piece – lasting no more than 8 minutes – but it nevertheless packs a powerful emotional punch. Schoenberg scored the work for orchestra, narrator and men’s chorus. The text is written from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor who, in a state of confusion and anxiety, recounts the horrors of genocide.
Takei, of course, is best known as the always dependable helmsman Ensign Sulu from the original “Star Trek” series. What’s less well known is that he spent his childhood living in a West Coast internment camp for Japanese-American civilians during the Second World War. That certainly made him a compelling choice to be narrator.
A veteran performer, Takei delivered his lines from memory and with quivering emotion. He was at his best when the text called on him to convey the vulnerability and sheer terror of the Jewish camp survivor. He was slightly less convincing when he had to shout the lines of a Nazi guard – his delivery had a little too much Sgt. Schultz from “Hogan’s Heroes” for my taste. There were no shortcomings in the Men of the Nashville Symphony Chorus, who sang with resonance and sincere feeling. Guerrero and the NSO, for their parts, provided flexible and able accompaniment.
Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” is another short piece, lasting about 10 minutes. Its profound impact on American music is still being felt. The work is scored for strings, winds and solo trumpet. These three groups (or layers) all play in a different key and tempo, so the piece becomes more dissonant as the music inevitably shifts out of sync. During the opening measures, the strings provide a transparent background of beatific calm. Every so often, the trumpet plays a pleading motif that seems to beg the question, what is the meaning of life? The winds respond each time with increasing shrillness and sarcasm.
Guerrero opted to play the Ives as a kind of coda to the Schoenberg, that is, he played one after the other without pause. This was an interesting idea that recognized the similarities between these two 20th-century revolutionaries. In practice, I didn’t think it worked. The Schoenberg is such a powerful piece that it needs a moment to be digested. I found myself still thinking about it when I suddenly became aware that the orchestra was already playing the Ives. Their performance of it was deeply affecting. But I think it deserved to be played on its own, sharing the spotlight and stage with no other work.
The first half closed with surely the most exciting concerto performance of the 2012-13 season so far. Moser launched into the Shostakovich concerto with the speed and intensity of a racehorse leaving the gate. Throughout the opening Allegretto, he played with a fiery temperament and commanding technique – he had the horsehairs flying as he dug his bow deeply into the strings. He played the second movement with intimacy and lyrical warmth – he was especially impressive in the cadenza, where he left no timbre or emotion unexplored. He took the finale at a daredevil pace. Guerrero and the NSO stuck to Moser like glue, playing the virtuoso accompaniment with precision and drama.
The highlight of Thursday’s performance came after intermission, when Guerrero and the NSO delivered a bracing rendition of Adams’ sprawling, glistening “Harmonielehre.” Adams found inspiration for this amazing 40-minute work in a dream, in which he imagined a giant tanker ship breaking free of gravity and flying over San Francisco Bay.
The first movement (or part) combines the shimmering repetition of minimalism with the lyrical grandeur of romanticism. The second part, called “The Anfortas Wound,” is a deeply felt meditation, while the finale, titled “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie,” ends with brilliant, quivering patterns in bright E-flat major.
Guerrero conducted this music with clarity, precision and high drama. He took the opening part at a brisk pace, keeping the ensemble tightly together despite constant (and treacherously dangerous) metric shifting. He resisted the urge to conduct “The Anfortas Wound” with brooding anguish, emphasizing instead the music’s contemplative beauty. His reading of the finale created a mood of pure ecstasy.
“Harmonielehre” is seldom performed, in part because it is so difficult. That Guerrero and the NSO nailed the piece on the first go serves as testament to this orchestra’s remarkable virtuosity.
IF YOU GO
Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony perform the music of Adams, Ives, Schoenberg and Shostakovich. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8 and Saturday, Feb. 9 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $28 to $115. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.