Music Review: The chorus is the star of the NSO’s concert this weekend

chorusThe glorious sounds of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are filling the Schermerhorn Symphony Center this weekend.

On Friday night, the NSO Chorus under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero presented two seldom-heard (and thematically related) works – Beethoven’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 1 “A Sea Symphony.”  Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor, brilliantly played on Friday by Christina and Michelle Naughton, rounded out the program. The concert repeats Saturday, Oct. 26 at 8 p.m.

Beethoven’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, which opened Friday’s concert, is what you might refer to as a “Pocket Cantata.” Composed in 1815, the work lasts a mere eight minutes, but its setting of two poems by Goethe nevertheless packs a powerful punch. The performance was certainly memorable, thanks to the careful preparation of the chorus’ new director Kelly Corcoran.

The chorus sang the opening line of Goethe’s “Meerestille”(“Calm Sea”) with hushed beauty, the group’s pianissimo singing suggesting a glassy ocean. They performed the second poem, “Glückliche Fahrt” (“Prosperous Voyage”), with the sort of radiant energy often associated with the composer’s Ninth Symphony. Guerrero and the NSO accompanied with remarkable control, allowing even the softest vocalizations to be easily heard.

naughtonI did a double-take when the Naughton sisters, who appeared next, first walked onstage. These two young pianists from Madison, Wis., are identical twins, and they are also the real deal. Trained at the Juilliard School and Curtis Institute of Music, the Naughtons played Poulenc’s D-minor concerto with dramatic flair, tossing off brilliant passagework in the outer movements with ease while playing the Mozartean second movement with elegance and grace. The performance was as sparkling and effervescent as champagne. Poulenc, one of history’s most insouciant composers, would have loved it.

It was impossible not to admire the NSO Chorus’ rendition of Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony,” the sprawling hour-long work that took up the concert’s entire second half. Completed in 1909, “A Sea Symphony” is like the British answer to Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand,” since both works are a brilliant synthesis of symphony, oratorio and song cycle.

Vaughan Williams’ work is a heartfelt setting of some of Walt Whitman’s most grandiose poetry, and Guerrero and NSO Chorus brought out the words and music in all of its glory. The chorus sang the opening movement, “A Song for All Seas, All Ships,” with a powerful and glistening sound. Their interpretation of the orchestral nocturne “On the Beach at Night, Alone” was filled with languor. The two vocal soloists, soprano Kelley Nassief and baritone Russell Braun, were just as impressive, singing with unfailing sensitivity to the meaning of the words.

The most unforgettable moment of the entire performance came at the end, after the final notes of the last movement faded away.  The finale is music of beatific calm and sublime beauty, and when it was over the audience sat in complete, breathless silence for at least 30 seconds – basically an eternity in a concert hall – before erupting in sustained applause. It was a magical moment that no one who was at the Schermerhorn on Friday will soon forget.


The Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform the music of Beethoven, Poulenc and Vaughan Williams. The performance is 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $138. Call 687-6400 or 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), 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.


  1. Elma Breitkopf says:

    Given that Vaughan Williams’s Symphony was written and premiered before Mahler’s 8th, I don’t think it can properly be called a “response” to the latter work.

  2. Hi Elma, thanks for your note. I think you might have misunderstood me. I didn’t say Vaughan Williams wrote in “response” to Mahler. I said the Sea Symphony was Britain’s answer to the Mahler Eighth, meaning the Sea Symphony occupies a place in England roughly equivalent to that of the Mahler Eighth in Austria and Germany. For the record. Mahler wrote his Eighth Symphony in a short spurt of energy in 1906 and the piece was premiered in September 1910. Vaughan Williams labored over his symphony from 1903-09 and it was premiered in October 1910, after Mahler. Remarkably, Mahler and Vaughan Williams worked independently but along similar lines, creating a hybrid symphony/oratorio.

  3. OK, that sounds right. Calling the Sea Symphony an answer to the 8th implied to me that it was responding to the work in some way. Thank you for your clarification.

  4. Thanks, Elma. My lack of clarity is probably due to my writing these things in a mad rush at 1 a.m. to make sure they are available first thing the next morning, so people can see them before the repeat concert. My apologies to all for my not-always-so-goodly-English!