Guerrero, Thibaudet soar at the Schermerhorn

ThibaudetNashville Symphony music director Giancarlo Guerrero is presenting one of his signature programs this weekend at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. It’s a mixed bill featuring two masterpieces and a daring new work. All three pieces received worthy performances during Thursday’s opening night concert.

Debussy’s Three Nocturnes, which opened the concert, are among the most sensuous and evocative works in the orchestral repertoire. Composed in 1899, these delightful tonal paintings create impressionistic images of drifting clouds, festive celebrations and sweetly singing sirens.

Guerrero delivered a very modern interpretation, one that prized realism over impressionism, a voluptuous sound over atmosphere. Although I tend to prefer more mist in my Debussy, I still found much to admire in the NSO’s performance. Guerrero and his musicians played “Nuages” (“Clouds”) with remarkable refinement, and there was plenty of color and energy in their rendition of “Fêtes” (“Festival”).

I was most impressed with the final nocturne, “Sirènes,” which featured the Nashville Symphony Women’s Chorus singing with enough sensuousness to enchant even the most hard-hearted ancient mariner.

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined the NSO for the next piece, contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No. 3 “The Mysteries of Light.” The NSO’s thoughtful program notes describe this concerto as a fusion of virtuoso concerto and symphonic tone poem. Like many tone poems, there is an implicit narrative in this concerto. The work’s five sections – played without pause – boast titles relating to the composer’s Catholic faith.

A true modernist, however, MacMillan seems to prefer abstraction to realism. Consequently, his concerto comes across as more angular and abstruse than lyrical and poetic. The work is nonetheless vividly colorful in a glistening, stained-glass sort of way, and on Thursday night Thibaudet made the most of it.  He played quicksilver passages at blistering speeds and hammered out double-fisted chords with power and precision. Guerrero and the NSO provided the pianist with a tight and shimmering ensemble.

The highlight of Thursday’s concert came after intermission, with the NSO’s performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98. Composed in 1885, the Fourth Symphony was Brahms’ most profound orchestral utterance, a work that’s positively brimming with passionate intensity.

This was Brahms’ last symphony, and it’s often correctly and justifiably described as an autumnal work. Perhaps as a result, this symphony is often given a rather austere and serious interpretation. The unfailingly sunny Guerrero, however, seemed incapable of rendering this work in an autumnal half-light. His reading was filled with warmth, and with a feeling that Brahms would have described as gemütlich.

The coziness of this approach meant there wasn’t as much urgency in the outer movements as I happen to like.  But there was deep feeling in the slow movement, brilliance in the scherzo and a sense of unimpeded flow throughout. In all, it was an impressive virtuoso feat, and symphony lovers would do well to catch one of this weekend’s repeat performances.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony performs the music of Brahms, Debussy and MacMillan. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $28 to $115. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.

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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.