Carlos Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony, is in town to lead the NSO in a wide-ranging program featuring the music of Walter Piston, Joseph Haydn, Manuel da Falla and Richard Strauss. The music of all four composers received worthy performances on Friday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 1.
Long before I heard any of his music, I knew Piston primarily as the author of excellent textbooks on harmony and counterpoint. That’s perhaps not surprising, given that Piston, a 20th-century American composer, taught at Harvard for over 30 years. But Piston was also a prolific composer who wrote music that was anything but academic.
For instance, his short Toccata (1948), which opened Friday’s program, was chockfull of breathtaking rhythms and lyrically appealing ideas. This demanding piece calls on every section of the orchestra to engage in seamless dovetailing, with brass and string sections tossing rhythmically complex melodies back and forth. The winds, meanwhile, play with remarkable sensitivity. Kalmar led the NSO in a bright, tight rendition that highlighted both the virtuosity and expressivity of the ensemble.
Haydn’s last 12 symphonies, known collectively as the “London Symphonies,” are among the supreme masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire. Works such as the Symphony No. 98, which closed the first half of Friday’s program, express a world of emotions. The symphony’s solemn Adagio, for instance, is a tribute to Mozart, who died just before Haydn composed the work. The finale, the longest in any Haydn symphony, is filled with brisk melodies and witty surprises – no composer worked as effectively and imaginatively with silence.
Kalmar and the NSO gave the Haydn a terrific reading. The first movement was played with welcome degrees of briskness and lightness, while the Adagio was performed with just the right amount of interpretive sweetness. Kalmar was at his level best in the robust Menuet, using sweeping gestures to elicit a sense of flow from the players. The finale was played with warmth, energy and good humor.
Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, which the opened the second half, is like sonic perfume: The work’s harmonies and rhythms are positively redolent of an Andalusian evening. Nights in the Gardens of Spain is a faintly disguised piano concerto, and guest pianist Arnoldo Cohen proved to be an ideal soloist. His playing was sparkling and brilliant, suggesting a garden of amazing sumptuousness. Kalmar and the NSO provided a sound that was equally lush and satisfying.
The highlight of Friday’s concert came at the end, with a memorable rendition of Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Kalmar led the NSO with energy and sweep – the horns seemingly let out an orgasmic cry at the climax of the prologue. The performance overall was remarkable for its prismatic color and for its rhythmic flexibility – the entire orchestra played with a spontaneous ebb and flow, as if the players were engaged in animated conversation. The performance of the suite’s famous waltz was filled with elegance and bittersweet emotion.
Kalmar and the NSO nailed this difficult music, resulting in the most enthusiastic ovation of the evening. It was a masterful performance, and classical fans would be well-advised to catch Saturday’s repeat performance.
IF YOU GO
Guest conductor Carlos Kalmar and the Nashville Symphony perform the music of Piston, Haydn, Falla and Strauss. The performance is 8 p.m. Saturday, March 1 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $138 and are available here.