Music Review: Conductor Hans Graf goes in long-winded pursuit of a musical mystery

grafMusic director Giancarlo Guerrero is away this weekend, but he’s left the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the hands of two distinguished artists. Hans Graf, a familiar face on the guest conducting circuit, is in town to lead the NSO in such perennial favorites as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503 and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Pianist Jeffrey Kahane is the soloist.

Friday’s performance at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center got off to a slow start. The first piece on the program was contemporary American composer Christopher Rouse’s Odna Zhizn (“A Life”), a short tone poem inspired by a woman named Natasha. A professor at the Juilliard School in New York, Rouse has always had a penchant for composing musical puzzles and wordplays – he once considered writing three piano concertos that would be titled “Seeing,” “Is” and “Believing.” In the case of Odna Zhizn, Rouse devised a system that purportedly used the musical alphabet to spell “Natasha.”

Graf decided that Rouse’s wordplay was the greatest musical mystery since Elgar wrote his Enigma Variations, so he opened the concert not with Odna Zhizn but with an interminable lecture-demonstration of Rouse’s technique. It turned what should have begun as a serene musical experience – Odna Zhizn opens with hushed, haunting strings – into an academic exercise. Music appreciation lectures have their place. The concert proper is not one of them.

And in the end, the lecture didn’t make Rouse’s music go down any easier. Odna Zhizn is mostly slow, abstruse and abstract music, with angular brass and woodwind melodies that shatter like glass over glacial strings. Embedded codes aside, I suspect that this music was really just a pretext for Rouse to show off his orchestral fancywork, his knack for creating vivid orchestral colors. Graf and the NSO, when they finally got around to it, brought out all of these hues with playing that was bold and precise.

Kahane has been one of my favorite classical pianists since I first heard him at the 1981 Van Cliburn Piano Competition, and on Friday he was terrific in the Mozart. He played this long, demanding concerto with grace, taste, an effortless technique and an uncanny ability to turn lyrical phrases. Kahane performed his own cadenza for this concerto, which was breathtaking in its virtuosity. Graf and the NSO provided tight accompaniment. It would have been nice if they had also played with a little more color and nuance.

Friday’s concert closed with Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, a 1943 work that tests every section of the orchestra. Graf seemed to be going for clarity and balance over power and thrust. As a result, he delivered a performance that was polished to perfection but never really caught fire. The audience was moved nonetheless and gave Graf and his players an enthusiastic ovation.

Photo: Bruce Bennett

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony performs the music of Rouse, Mozart and Bartok. The concert is 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $22 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.