Music Review: NSO offers a night of gleaming concertos at the Schermerhorn

giancarlo2The Nashville Symphony Orchestra is back to doing what it does best, which is playing contemporary American music with style and flair.

On Friday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, the NSO under the direction of music director Giancarlo Guerrero presented an audaciously original program that included composer Joan Tower’s Chamber Dance (2006) and Stephen Paulus’ Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (2004). Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor (expertly played by concertmaster Jun Iwasaki) and Aaron Copland’s Suite from Billy the Kid rounded out the program.

towerTower and the NSO are old friends. The orchestra under the direction of former music adviser Leonard Slatkin won its first three Grammy Awards in 2008 for its recording of Tower’s Made in America (Naxos). On Friday, Guerrero and his players recorded their performance of Chamber Dance as part of a forthcoming all-Tower CD that will celebrate the composer’s 75th birthday. The other two works on the CD – including a Violin Concerto not previously recorded – will be performed Nov. 21-23 alongside Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony.

My only complaint about Friday’s opener, Chamber Dance, was that the work seemed to be neither a piece for chamber orchestra nor a dance. Tower composed the work for one of the country’s great virtuoso bands, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the title is supposed to suggest the seamless way the different sections of that orchestra dance around one another. It’s a nice image but a sonic misnomer. The complex rhythms in Tower’s music would quickly tie a ballerina’s feet into knots. Likewise, Tower’s huge palette of vivid tone colors is inherently orchestral. There’s nothing “chamber” about it.

What she has in fact created is an effective one-movement concerto for orchestra, one in which the various principals – violin, cello, viola, bassoon – take turns in the limelight playing memorable solos and duets. Guerrero and his musicians played this difficult music with precision and feeling.

paulus1In addition to the Tower recording, the NSO is also in the process of making an all-Paulus CD. That project couldn’t be better timed. The 64-year-old Paulus, one of the country’s greatest and most prolific composers, suffered a devastating stroke in July. His substantial body of work – over 400 pieces including some significant operas – warrants our attention.

His Grand Concerto for Organ (splendidly played by organist Nathan Laube) is aptly named. This terrific three-movement work is positively brimming with big dramatic flourishes. Laube engaged in animated lyrical exchanges with various orchestra principals in the opening movement, titled “Vivacious and spirited.” He was just as effective in the second movement, called “Austere: foreboding,” which includes a gleaming quotation of the hymn “Come, Come Ye Saints.” The finale, “Jubilant,” was a thrilling showpiece of oscillating organ chords (played on multiple manuals) and fleet-footed pedal passages that gave Laube an aerobic workout. Laube played this music with effortless virtuosity. The NSO, for its part, provided dramatic accompaniment.

Most violin virtuosos insist on trotting out Bruch’s tired old warhorse, the Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, so it was a treat to hear Iwasaki perform the composer’s unjustly neglected Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor. Iwasaki performed in the grand manner, his golden tone and commanding technique coming together in a glorious outpouring of romantic sentiment. Not surprisingly, Guerrero and the NSO provided Iwasaki with accompaniment that was beautifully nuanced and expertly calibrated. Obviously, these players all know each other very well.

Friday’s concert ended with Aaron Copland at his most unapologetically populist. Guerrero and the NSO found just the right balance in the Suite from Billy the Kid, playing with an ensemble that moved seamlessly from delicacy to brashness. I was utterly persuaded that I was listening to the “Kid,” so much so that I  recommend you rustle up some tickets for tonight’s repeat performance.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony performs the music of Joan Tower, Stephen Paulus, Max Bruch and Aaron Copland. The concert is 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $27 to $138 and are available here or by calling 615-687-6400.

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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.