Music Review: Gateway Chamber Orchestra opens its 2014-15 season with a Mozartean masterpiece

GCO3There are undoubtedly times when musicians in a small, local orchestra wonder if there will ever be as many people in the audience as on the stage. At one time, such thoughts must have gone through the minds of musicians in the Gateway Chamber Orchestra. This terrific ensemble had a loyal following in its hometown of Clarksville, but had it difficulty attracting a crowd when it first started concertizing in Nashville last year.

GCO was at Downtown Presbyterian Church on Monday night for the start of its second subscription season in Nashville, but this time things were different. Word went out early that Charles Neidich, one of the world’s foremost clarinetists, was in town to perform Mozart’s autumnal Clarinet Concerto with the GCO and its music director Gregory Wolynec. That combination of star power and Mozartean masterpiece proved to be an irresistible draw for many Nashville classical fans.

neidichOne benefit of hearing Neidich in this concerto is that he plays a basset clarinet. Mozart originally composed the concerto for that instrument, which has a warm, plangent sound due to its lower range. Neidich put the instrument to good use, giving a performance that was remarkable for its soft shadings and flawless passagework. A charismatic performer, Neidich often provided a little clarinet choreography during the concert, dipping it low during decrescendos, using it to trace the shape of phrases in the air.

Wolynec and the GCO were splendid accompanists, performing with elegance and rhythmic verve. They were especially impressive in the second movement Adagio, providing a luminous – and barely audible – pianissimo sheen beneath Neidich’s soft, gorgeous lyrical lines. The word “sublime” is often overused and abused in classical reviews. Neidich’s and GCO’s rendition of this Adagio was sublime.

GCO specializes in playing three kinds of works – masterpieces (like the aforementioned Mozart), works by contemporary American composers and lost treasures. Monday’s concert opened with the former (American composer John Corigliano’s Voyage) and closed with the latter (Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3).

Voyage, arranged for string orchestra and lasting about nine minutes, finds Corigliano writing in a neo-Romantic, Samuel Barber-like mode. Indeed, there were moments when this Voyage called to mind Barber’s Adagio for Strings – minus that more famous work’s sense of urgency and angst. Voyage is a serene piece, and GCO played it with transparency and heart-felt emotion.

GCO’s program notes mention that French composer Louise Farrenc’s music fell into oblivion within three years of her death in 1875. I don’t know why most of her music has been forgotten (because I don’t know most of her music), but I have a hunch about why her Symphony No. 3 in G minor fell into neglect. Perhaps the biggest problem is that this music sounds both strikingly German and depressively derivative – let’s face it, warmed-over Schumann and Mendelssohn in France right after the Franco-Prussian War might not go over well.

Another reason is the music lacks a sense of urgency. The outer movements may open in dramatic minor-mode fashion, but they quickly segue into long stretches of bright major-mode pleasantness. The message here would seem to be that everything is just OK. Ah, but the French know better. Needless to say, GCO made the most of this work, performing with color, sweep and unfailing sensitivity.

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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), 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.