Classical review: Nashville Sinfonietta, playing for a good cause

wangCellist Felix Wang and Nashville multi-instrumentalist Roger Wiesmeyer are both having a frenetic month.

In late January, Wang, a Blair School of Music professor, gave the world premiere of Michael Alec Rose’s new Cello Concerto. Not one to rest on his laurels, Wang is now gearing up to perform this Friday with his Blakemore Trio, which is releasing its debut CD.

rogerxWiesmeyer, the Nashville Symphony’s principal English horn player and a gifted pianist, recently gave his first-ever performance of a piano concerto, soloing with Nashville’s Mozart Festival Orchestra in that composer’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major. This Saturday, he’ll give the world-premiere performance of composer John Marvin’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano.

Together, Wang and Wiesmeyer are fast becoming Nashville’s new musical iron men.

The two were at it again on Tuesday night, when they performed with the Nashville Sinfonietta at Ingram Hall. Wang soloed in Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129. Wiesmeyer played principal oboe in both the Schumann concerto and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92.

The Nashville Sinfonietta’s annual performance is now one of Wiesmeyer’s favorites. Wiesmeyer and the young conductor Dean Whiteside co-founded the ensemble three years ago to mix their two favorite things – music of the Wiener Klassik and social outreach. Tuesday night’s concert at Ingram Hall was a benefit for the Shade Tree Family Clinic, a free health clinic run by Vanderbilt medical students to help the uninsured and underinsured in East Nashville.

Nashville Sinfonietta is itself a mix of two things – student musicians from Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, and professionals from the Blair faculty and Nashville Symphony. On Tuesday, Whiteside smartly filled many of his most crucial chairs with the pros. Blair professor Philip Dikeman, a veteran of the Detroit Symphony, was at the flute desk, right next to the venerable Wiesmeyer. Blair professor and Blakemore Trio violinist Carolyn Huebl was concertmaster.

The effect of all these pros was like stacking the high school varsity football team with NFL players. From a practical point of view, the arrangement allowed Whiteside to conduct at tempos that might have been considered reckless with a student ensemble. Instead, this group was able to blaze through the finale of the Beethoven Seventh.

Tuesday’s concert opened with cellist Felix Wang’s memorable performance of the Schumann concerto. Schumann once said he could never write a concerto for the virtuosos. By that, he meant he wasn’t interesting in composing shallow, showy music. His cello concerto nevertheless gave Wang a workout.

Lasting about 25 minutes, the concerto consists of three movements that are played without pause – Schumann apparently hated hearing applause between movements, so he designed a concerto to prevent unwanted interruptions. Of course, that also means the cellist has to have the stamina of a long-distance runner, since the soloist doesn’t get a break.

wang2The concerto includes its fair share of vertiginous passagework, which Wang dispatched with his usual ease. But what most impressed this listener wasn’t the cellist’s technique but his tone. From the concerto’s opening measures, Wang played with a tone that was as sweet and viscous as honey. A serious artist – Wang plays with few smiles but lots of intensity – he approached the concerto more as a vocal than instrumental work. His playing was always focused on drawing out the music’s long, lyrical lines.

Whiteside – a tall, lean conductor who looks like a young Kent Nagano – proved to be an able wingman.  He kept the orchestra in a tight formation with Wang even during the soloist’s wildest flights of interpretive fancy.

Whiteside’s interpretation of the Beethoven Seventh was almost as successful. His reading of the first movement was full of lyricism but also of storm and stress, especially in the development section. The only flaw was in the brass, which tended to blare during the recapitulation when it needed to blaze. The famous Allegretto movement was played with a luminous sound, while the Scherzo surged with energy. As noted earlier, he conducted the final movement – an already intense Allegro con brio – with extra fire.

It’s worth noting that the musicians of Nashville Sinfonietta all play pro bono for the worthy cause of the Shade Tree Family Clinic. One suspects they also play for the sheer love of this great repertoire, since money can’t the buy the sort of deeply felt emotions heard on Tuesday night.

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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.