Classical review: NSO, Eroica Trio open Beethoven fest

Beethoven would seem to need a music festival about as much as Harry Potter needs a book fest. The great composer’s music is well represented on symphonic programs. It requires no additional attention.

But that’s not stopping the Nashville Symphony Orchestra from throwing a Beethoven bash this June.  The NSO is presenting three festival concerts this month at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which will culminate June 30 with a performance of the mighty Ninth Symphony. Festivities got under way on Friday with guest conductor Lucas Richman and the Eroica Trio performing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.

The Eroica players bill themselves as “the most sought-after trio in the world,” and that’s probably right. They first came to prominence in 1991 after winning first place in the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Chamber Music Competition. The group’s original lineup – pianist Erika Nickrenz, cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio and violinist Adela Peña – were all accomplished graduates of the Juilliard School. But one suspects that their success has had as much to do with their appearance as with their playing. These musicians – all statuesque and appealing in their long, colorful gowns – definitely didn’t look like the old guys in the Beaux Arts Trio.

On Friday night, the ensemble’s current personnel – Nickrenz, Sant’Ambrogio and violinist Susie Park, who joined the group in 2006 – gave a dutifully polished performance of the Beethoven Triple Concerto. That said, I didn’t feel that these players quite lived up to the name “Heroic” Trio. Their playing in the Allegro and Largo movements was elegant and lyrical and was certainly deeply felt. But the sort of sonic heft and drama that one expects from middle-period Beethoven was largely missing from this performance. Only the final polonaise movement seemed to have sufficient weight and thrust. I noticed that Nickrenz’s piano bench had to be raised on blocks for Friday’s performance. That seemed to be an apt metaphor for the ensemble’s interpretation, which seemed to be a size too small for Beethoven’s music.

I found Richman’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 to be much more satisfying. Part of my enthusiasm may be due to the programming. Beethoven’s terrific Fourth Symphony is like the neglected middle sibling among the composer’s orchestral works. It’s the valley between two mountains – the towering Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” and the precipitous Symphony No. 5 – and as such it’s often overlooked. But it shouldn’t be because this symphony is an intensely verdant valley.

Richman, who is music director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, basically got the Fourth Symphony right. His tempos in the fast movements were appropriately brisk, his textures were clear and his dynamics were sensitively nuanced and shaded. My only complaint was with the second movement, which seemed more like a rushed andante than a gently flowing adagio.

Friday’s concert opened with the Overture to Die Weihe des Hauses, Op. 124 (“Consecration of the House” Overture). This performance seemed to lack a sense of musical line. The various themes did not flow naturally one into the other. In that respect, it was like a musical quilt that showed its seams. There were other missed opportunities as well, like crescendos that climaxed too quickly. I suspect that the NSO needed a little more time to warm up. Still, it was the perfect piece to open the festival.

One more thought about the NSO’s summer Beethoven fest. Although it is a joy to hear all of this great music played greatly, I have to wonder whether a summer fest shouldn’t offer more than just the standard programming we hear during the regular season. Rather than just playing a string of hits –Triple Concerto, Emperor Concerto, Ninth Symphony – perhaps the NSO could present programs that are more unusual.

It could, for instance, perform Gustav Mahler’s arrangements of the Beethoven symphonies, providing us with some perspective about the how the late Romantics approached Beethoven’s music. Or it could perform Beethoven’s symphonies alongside the works of modern composers. Such juxtapositions often shed new light on old works. There are dozens of such possibilities, all which would create a greater sense of singular event. That’s what summer festivals should be all about.

LIVE

Nashville Symphony Orchestra presents its Beethoven Festival 2012. Next concert is 8 p.m. June 22, with pianist William Wolfram performing Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto. The festival continues at 8 p.m. June 30 with Giancarlo Guerrero leading Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. All concerts are at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $29 to $79. Call 687-6400.

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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.