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NSO ends Beethoven fest with transcendent Ninth

chorusYou’ve heard of New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival? Well, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s final 2012 summer fest concert was Basically Beethoven.

The performance, which music director Giancarlo Guerrero led Saturday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, used Beethoven’s music as sonic bookends. Guerrero opened the concert in heroic style with Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, Op. 84, and he closed it with the transcendence of the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 “Choral.” Sandwiched in between was Antonio Vivaldi’s Baroque rarity, the Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra in C major, R. 443.

At first blush, the Vivaldi concerto struck me as an odd choice for a Beethoven festival. Vivaldi’s music, as the NSO’s program notes themselves indicated, was unknown to Beethoven. A Haydn or Mozart concerto might have made more sense on this program – personally, I’d love hear the Ninth paired one day with Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.

But Saturday’s performance was intended as a celebration of both Beethoven and of the Vivaldi soloist, Norma Grobman Rogers, who was retiring from the NSO after 40 glorious years of musicmaking in Nashville. During intermission, Rogers’ son and daughter-in-law announced that they were endowing her chair in perpetuity. That welcome news was met by a rousing ovation from the capacity crowd.

No doubt, that enthusiasm also reflected the audience’s reaction to Rogers’ just-completed performance. The Vivaldi concerto proved to be a terrific showcase for her talents. She displayed her impressive technical skills in the outer movements, with her remarkable lungs sending forth flurries of quicksilvers notes. She approached the slow middle section as if it were a deeply felt aria. Guerrero led the performance in Baroque fashion, with the piccolo accompanied only by a small, stripped-down combo of string players. It wasn’t an authentic performance. Still, the expertly terraced dynamics captured the spirit of Baroque music.

There are many different ways of interpreting Beethoven’s orchestral music. George Szell, the Cleveland Orchestra’s legendary former conductor, approached the symphonies like chamber music, with precision of ensemble the main goal. Szell was a rationalist. Guerrero is a romantic.

giancarlo4In both the Egmont Overture and Ninth Symphony, Guerrero proved to be a disciple of the Leonard Bernstein School of Choreographic Conducting. He led the opening movement of the Ninth Symphony with wild gyrations, looking at times as if he were trying to exorcise some unseen demon; in the Scherzo he seemed to be rotating a propeller. Not surprisingly, there was little subtlety in Guerrero’s conception of Beethoven, and there were also some missed opportunities – the Adagio of the Ninth lacked a sure sense of line, and so it fell short in its usual magical ability to seemingly stop time.

And yet, there was never a lack of electricity in Guerrero’s Beethoven. His interpretation of the Egmont Overture was appropriately dramatic but also warmly lyrical. My only complaint was with the brass, which tended to blare at the climax instead of blaze.

There were certainly some nice touches in the Ninth. Guerrero led the violins in Gustav Mahler fashion, dividing these strings on either side of the podium instead of keeping them all on his left. This resulted in some memorable stereo effects in the Scherzo. The entire finale was fabulous. The soloists – soprano Jonita Lattimore, mezzo-soprano Charlotte Daw Paulsen, tenor Bryan Griffin and bass-baritone Jason Grant – all sang with a deep feeling for Schiller’s words. The chorus, for its part, sang gloriously, with a luminous sheen surrounding every note. It was therefore no accident that Douglas Rose, the Nashville Symphony Chorus’ interim director, received the evening’s loudest ovation.

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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.