Music Review: Gateway Chamber Orchestra plays the Grand Lodge of Tennessee

gatewayJust as we all suspected, Nashville Masons have been hiding a big secret in their Grand Lodge of Tennessee: It’s their glorious Freemasons Auditorium, a 1,455-seat acoustical marvel that is one of Music City’s true clandestine treasures.

Gateway Chamber Orchestra, another one of the region’s hidden gems, was inside the Mason’s ornate auditorium on Monday night to present the final performance of its inaugural season in Nashville. The group’s program, expertly conducted by music director Gregory Wolynec, included a brisk and often radiant rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major along with memorable performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 and Henry Brant’s On the Nature of Things. Every note on the program resonated beautifully inside the Mason’s hall.

Certainly, Gateway couldn’t have found a better venue for Brant’s On the Nature of Things. A Canadian-born American composer, Brant was renowned for composing spatial music, namely, works that position various musicians in an ensemble in different places in the hall.  Among other things, Brant wanted to create layered textures of sound similar to the antiphonal music heard in Renaissance and Baroque cathedrals.  On Monday night, Brant’s technique provided the audience with an amazing surround-sound experience.

Wolynec located his string ensemble on the auditorium floor. His various wind, brass and percussion players stood high above the hall’s steeply sloping seats. As the strings played a tranquil, Coplandesque melody, the winds and brass provided intricate counterpoint. Wolynec, to his credit, kept all of his divergent forces tightly together.

Although Schoenberg was the father of 12-tone music, his Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1939) looks backward to the composer’s youthful, neo-Romantic style. Gateway has long made Schoenberg a specialty – the ensemble’s recording of his Chamber Symphony for 15 Soloists is highly regarded. Not surprisingly, the group played his two-movement Chamber Symphony No. 2 with feeling and flair.  Indeed, Gateway performed the opening Adagio with the clarity and transparency of a string quartet, and it dispatched the final movement with requisite fire.

Classical connoisseurs often debate the wisdom of having a chamber orchestra play a Beethoven symphony. There was no arguing, however, with Gateway’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Indeed, Wolynec and his players probably came closer to the composer’s intentions than many major orchestras.

It was certainly a joy to hear a conductor take Beethoven’s metronome markings seriously (Beethoven completed the symphony in 1802, and he added metronome markings in 1817). Wolynec’s tempo in the opening Allegro con brio (about a half note = 100) was brisk and virtuosic. His reading of the scherzo was full of propulsion. Yet the most unforgettable moments came in the second-movement Larghetto, which shimmered from beginning to end with radiance.

Crowds at some of Gateway’s Nashville concerts this inaugural season were frustratingly small, but then the Cleveland Orchestra might have trouble filling a hall in Nashville on a Monday night. At the same time, Gateway proved it is the real deal, a virtuoso band with adventurous tastes. The following for this orchestra will surely grow.

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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.