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Mahler and Meyer provide the Nashville Symphony with a glorious finale

meyerSince becoming music director of the Nashville Symphony in 2009, Giancarlo Guerrero has steadfastly pursued two goals: To turn his orchestra into a leading exponent of contemporary American music, and to transform himself into a convincing Mahlerian. He may well accomplish both objectives this weekend at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

guerrerohead2For his final classical subscription concert of the 2012-13 season, Guerrero is leading the NSO in a new Double Concerto for Violin, Double Bass and Orchestra by American composer Edgar Meyer and in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Both works received memorable performances during Thursday’s opening night concert.

Meyer walked onstage to tumultuous applause, which was fitting given that he’s something of a hometown hero. The Nashville-based composer and double-bass virtuoso is exactly the kind of classical musician that Music City loves. He’s a versatile artist who seems to be as happy playing with a bluegrass band as with a classical orchestra. Indeed, he even looks like an Americana artist, what with his barbershop quartet-like white shirt, bowtie and suspenders.

There’s certainly an Americana flavor to Meyer’ new Double Concerto. The finale, for instance, comes across as a kind of vigorous American folk dance. Yet the work’s overall feel is decidedly classical. Lasting about 30 minutes, the work features the traditional three-movement arrangement, with fast outer movements surrounding a slow lyrical one. Meyer also opts for the baroque practice of alternating solo and orchestral sections, a technique that prevents the solo violin and double bass from blending in too much with the rest of the orchestra’s strings.

bellMeyer and his duo partner, violinist Joshua Bell, gave the work a bracing rendition. Bell made a big impression from the beginning, playing the first movement’s main theme (a sort of pastoral sounding, flute-like melody) with sweetness and melting lyricism. Meyer assigned to the violin much of the concerto’s fleet-fingered passagework, and Bell tossed off this difficult music with easy elegance. The composer played his own rhythmically complex part with precision and with unfailing sensitivity. Guerrero and the NSO provided accompaniment that seamlessly dovetailed with the soloists.

Thursday’s concert opened with Mahler’s seldom heard Blumine. Mahler originally intended for this short, mellifluous piece to be part of his First Symphony, but he eventually changed his mind and discarded it. The work now serves as an apt and effective opener at any concert that also features the First Symphony. Guerrero and the NSO played this piece with the immediacy and intimacy of chamber music. There was clarity in every part of the orchestra. The warmly expressive trumpet playing was especially moving.

Guerrero’s reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 seemed appropriately monumental. He conducted the symphony’s opening movement at a relaxed pace, giving the music plenty of room to breathe, which readily evoked the intended image of a shimmering dawn over a vast landscape. There was edge in the second-movement scherzo, which sounded like an earthy peasant dance. And there was just the right amount of irony in the third movement, with its parody of “Frere Jacques.” The finale had everything – storm, stress, heartfelt lyricism and an ultimate sense of spiritual triumph.

Guerrero and the NSO are currently in the process of playing all of Mahler’s orchestral works. On Thursday, they proved they can play this composer’s music with the best of them.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony performs Edgar Meyer’s Double Concerto (with Meyer and violinist Joshua Bell) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $49 to $119. 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.