Music Review: Getting to know the GCO

gatewaySome of the greatest works in the symphonic repertoire were written not for mighty Mahler-sized orchestras but for smaller, more intimate groups. For that reason, Nashville classical fans should be pleased that Clarksville’s fine Gateway Chamber Orchestra (GCO) has added Music City to its itinerary.

Gateway was in East Nashville on Monday, presenting its signature-style programming at East End United Methodist Church. Founded by faculty members at Austin Peay State University five years ago, Gateway had until this season presented most of its subscription concerts at Mabry Concert Hall in Clarksville.

Last May, the orchestra under the direction of conductor Greg Wolynec decided to test the waters in Nashville. The ensemble’s deeply felt rendition of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at Second Presbyterian Church of Green Hills was extremely  well received, so the orchestra decided to expand its 2013-14 season to include repeat performances in Nashville.

“We’re doing an architectural tour of Nashville this season,” Wolynec told the East Nashville audience on Monday. That was a reference to the various venues in Nashville where the orchestra will play this season, including a final concert in March at the historic Nashville Masonic Lodge. (Wolynec will conduct Schonberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 at the lodge; he should lead the group in Mozart’s Overture to the Magic Flute.)

Gateway always presents three kinds of pieces: unjustly neglected works, contemporary American compositions and masterpieces. All three of these ingredients were included in the mix on Monday at East End United Methodist Church.

The unjustly neglected masterpieces came in the form of two Haydn rarities: Overture to La Vera Costanza and Symphony No. 63 in D major “La Roxelane.” As Wolynec observed in his program note, Haydn composed more than a dozen operas in his lifetime, but none of them are performed with any regularity in the United States. Haydn may not have possessed Mozart’s gift for vocal writing – who did? Nonetheless, his orchestral writing was fabulous, so naturally the two works on Gateway’s program were terrific.

The overture sounded less like an operatic prelude than a symphony in miniature. Lasting less than 10 minutes, the piece was arranged in five well-defined sections that were roughly equivalent to fast and slow movements. Gateway’s performance was full of nice detail, including some finely shaded dynamic contrasts.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 63 got its nickname from the second movement, which was derived from incidental music Haydn once wrote for a play. Gateway’s performance expertly balanced the need for theatrical drama and courtly elegance.

Wolynec is a native Vermonter, so he brought Troy Peters’ Between Hills Briefly Green back to Tennessee as a kind of souvenir. Peters found inspiration for his piece in the Green Mountains, which provide only “ninety days of frost free weather.” The music struck me as being Coplandesque, a combination of Americana folk and dance music, and a beautiful blend of popular and high culture. Gateway played this music with immediacy and vitality.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K. 319, which closed the program, was the evening’s masterpiece. But it could have served as an unjustly neglected gem as well, since Mozart is usually represented in concert only by his final seven symphonies, Nos. 35-41. Gateway gave Mozart’s pre-Viennese Symphony No. 33 its due, delivering a performance that was both stylistically informed and splendidly musical.

Gateway is promoting its first full Nashville season with the slogan, “Get to know the GCO.” Judging from the quality of Monday’s concert, Nashville classical fans would be well-advised to do just that.

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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.