Music Review: Gateway Chamber Orchestra shows off its strings in Nashville

gateway Gateway Chamber Orchestra has had considerable success with Gustav Mahler, having played the composer’s music at its Nashville debut last spring. On Monday night, the Clarksville-based orchestra returned to Music City to perform some of Mahler’s most heavenly music.

The group’s concert at Downtown Presbyterian Church was called “Romantic Strings” and was intended to show off the Gateway string section’s golden sheen. And what better piece to that than the rapturously beautiful Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor.

Mahler completed his Fifth Symphony in 1902, the same year he married Alma Schindler. The Adagietto in F major, arranged for strings and harp, is Mahler’s love letter to Alma and includes some of the most passionate music in the entire symphonic repertoire. Gateway conductor Gregory Wolynec took his time in this music, as if savoring the sweet fragrance of the melodies. The sound he coaxed from his players was utterly sumptuous, the playing deeply felt.

Founded five years ago by music faculty at Austin Peay State University, Gateway’s mission includes performing and recording unjustly neglected repertoire.  To that end, Wolynec and his players have been justifiably lavishing attention on Franz Schreker.

An Austrian, Schreker was one of the German-speaking world’s best-known and successful early-20th-century composers, and his operas were seen as groundbreaking. Poor health, the failure of some of his late works and the spread of anti-Semitism marginalized Schreker, and his music fell into obscurity for decades.

In recent years, some of Schreker’s major works have enjoyed a comeback, and Gateway has been quick to jump on the bandwagon. On Monday, the group played Schreker’s Intermezzo for String Orchestra, Op. 8, the breakthrough work that first established his reputation.  Wolynec and his musicians played this serene music with suppleness and flexibility, which gave Schreker’s gorgeous melodies room to breathe.

Monday’s concert included the original version of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, completed in 1948 for Benny Goodman. The famed jazz musician didn’t play this version, which he considered too rhythmically spiky and dissonant, but Gateway soloist Mingzhe Wang was more than equal to the concerto’s challenges. He played this music – brimming with Copland’s signature wide-open harmonies and off-kilter rhythms – with spontaneity, sureness of technique and a beautifully reedy tone.

Gateway closed with Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, a miraculous work (composed when Britten was just 21) that is anything but easy to play. Wolynec and the orchestra delivered a performance that managed to be both playful and sophisticated at the same time.

This season marks the first time Gateway has included Nashville on its itinerary. Previously, it had always performed in Clarksville. The group’s concerts are notable for their innovative programming. But Gateway’s Nashville performances are also serving as an appealing architectural tour. The audience got to take in Downtown Presbyterian Church’s glorious Egyptian revival décor on Monday. Gateway will end its season performing in the ornate theater of Nashville’s Grand Lodge. For more information about upcoming performances, click 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.