NSO celebrates its own independence day with ‘1812 Overture’

guerrerosideOrchestras often play Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture this time of year. The composer’s unapologetically patriotic potboiler, with its blazing brass and percussive cannonade, is the composition of choice to accompany Fourth of July fireworks.

On Friday night, Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero led the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in a performance of that repertory staple at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Talk about serendipitous timing. Earlier this month, Bank of America had initiated foreclosure proceedings against the Schermerhorn, and the day picked to auction off the orchestra’s gleaming concert hall was (you guessed it) Friday.

Thanks to some significant help from its long-time benefactor, Martha Ingram, the NSO announced a settlement with its creditors on Monday. Disaster was averted and the foreclosure notice was withdrawn. When he initially programmed the 1812 Overture, Guerrero had no way of knowing that the orchestra would play this celebratory music immediately after surviving the biggest crisis in its 67-year history. But the audience that packed the Schermerhorn on Friday night understood implicitly the symbolic significance of the event, and they gave the orchestra a prolonged and thunderous ovation.

The NSO’s performance of the 1812 Overture was the climax of a summer celebration of the composer’s music. Last week, Associate Conductor Kelly Corcoran led the orchestra in an all-Tchaikovsky concert that featured, among other things, a performance of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (with pianist Cecile Licad). Guerrero’s all-Tchaikovsky concert on Friday was devoted mostly to short works. In addition to the 1812 Overture, Guerrero also conducted the brief and kinetic “Cossack Dance” from the opera Mazeppa and the festive Capriccio italien, Op. 45.

The most substantive work on the program was the Serenade in C major for String, Op. 48. From an interpretive point of view, Guerrero couldn’t have found a more antipodal work to balance the 1812 Overture. Tchaikovsky described this serenade, which had been inspired by his beloved Mozart, as inhabiting a world located somewhere between the symphony and the string quartet.

Guerrero, for his part, clearly approached this piece as if it were chamber music. Dressed in his white summer jacket, Guerrero opted to conduct without a baton to emphasize the intimacy and immediacy of the music. He had no interest in subdividing beats. His mostly minimal gestures were all about shaping phrases and eliciting succulent sounds from his musicians.

The players, for their parts, gave Guerrero everything he asked for. They performed the opening movement with flow and transparency, and they brought elegance and charm to the second-movement waltz, which was surely the most Viennese-like music that Tchaikovsky ever wrote. The third-movement “Elégie” is the emotional heart of the serenade, and the NSO did it justice, playing with ineffable beauty and calm. The finale was virtuosic without seeming needlessly showy.

That said, summer symphony concerts are all about fun, and so showiness dominated everything else. Guerrero gave the opener, “Cossack Dance” from Mazeppa, a wildly energetic reading, turning it into an appropriately spicy appetizer for the rest of the evening’s musical fare. The Capriccio italien received some beautifully idiomatic playing from the brass and winds, but the ovation in the end was most likely in response to the frenzied gesticulations with which Guerrero conducted the capriccio’s climax.

Not surprisingly, the 1812 Overture did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to swell our hearts with emotion and pride and bring us in the end to our feet. As the audience roared its approval, Guerrero looked on, his usually broad “I’m-the-happiest-luckiest-guy-in-the-world” grin replaced with an expression of quiet gratitude and humility. He had good reason to look that way. His orchestra is going to need all the good will it can get if it is to move beyond crisis and thrive.

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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.