The Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing financial crisis has surely been an emotionally wrenching experience for the musicians. But if they were feeling any stress during their all-Tchaikovsky concert Friday at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, they weren’t showing it.
Under the expert direction of associate conductor Kelly Corcoran, the NSO performed some of the famed Russian composer’s most hyperemotional works – Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, Piano Concerto No. 1, among others – with deep feeling and jaw-dropping virtuosity. Naturally, all of these renditions won rousing ovations.
Appropriately enough, the orchestra opened with Romeo and Juliet, the composer’s first bona-fide masterpiece and a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Lasting little more than 20 minutes, this amazing work captures the essence of Shakespeare’s play. The slow introduction, in somber F sharp, establishes the tragic mood, and after an inevitable build up of tension the music erupts into the pulsating battle music of the Montagues and Capulets. When the star-crossed lovers’ sensuous theme finally emerges, it’s like a sunrise.
Corcoran and the NSO gave the music its due. The group’s tempos were broad, but their reading overall was tightly wound and suspenseful, and the climaxes at their best were explosive. That kept the crowd on the edge of its collective seat.
Tchaikovsky’s deep and abiding love for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was apparent in the next piece, the Suite No. 4 in G major, Op. 62 “Mozartiana.” The four movements – gigue, minuet, prayer, and theme and variations – pay homage to 18th-century Viennese classicism. Yet this was Mozart viewed through a 19th-century lens. The third-movement prayer, based on a piano transcription by Liszt, could have been music for Wagner’s Parsifal. The romanticism of the theme and variations was pure Tchaikovsky.
Collectively, the NSO musicians delivered a finely polished performance, playing every note with clarity and emotional sincerity. Individual performances were especially noteworthy. Assistant concertmaster Erin Hall shined in the theme and variations, which has a solo violin part that is so prominent that it may as well be a violin concerto. She played with technical finesse and a golden tone. Principal clarinetist James Zimmerman was no less impressive, playing cascading notes and filigrees with easy elegance.
The second half began with a brief appetizer – the “Polonaise” from the opera Eugene Onegin, which was energetically played – before moving onto the evening’s main course, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor. Cecile Licad, the last pianist to win the once prestigious (and now defunct) Leventritt Competition, was soloist, and she gave a riveting account. As the orchestra played the grand flourishes of the concerto’s famous opening, Licad thundered away with her double-fisted chords, hurling huge sonorities into the concert hall.
Licad made the most of the concerto’s lyrical moments – she can play a dulcet pianissimo with the best of them – but for the most part her performance was one of shock and awe. At times, her reading seemed like one big orgy of octaves – in the finale, she seemed hell bent on playing faster than Vladimir Horowitz had done at his most extreme. Her approach wasn’t always musical, but it sure was exciting.
Friday’s performance happened just hours after the symphony reportedly reached a settlement with Bank of America over its outstanding debt. That agreement followed months of fiscal uncertainty and strife.
But the challenges are not over yet. On Thursday, the symphony presented its offer to the musicians to renew their contract, which expires July 31. Let’s hope the two sides come to a speedy but fair arrangement. That’s the surest way of getting the symphony back into the business of making great music for our city.
Giancarlo Guerrero leads the NSO in another all-Tchaikovsky concert at 8 p.m. Friday, June 28 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The performance will include the composer’s ever-popular 1812 Overture. Tickets are $27 to $77 and are available at the symphony’s box office, 1 Symphony Place, by calling 687-6400 or at www.nashvillesymphony.org.