Classical review: NSO program offers a taste of France and Hollywood

marklThe Nashville Symphony Orchestra is playing without its usual conductor this weekend. Giancarlo Guerrero is away, off doing whatever roving music directors usually do when they’re not with their home orchestras. In his place, he has left us with an elegant and refined European conductor.

Jun Märkl, a German-born maestro who has led the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony for the past five years, is in town to conduct the music of Messiaen, Korngold and Berlioz. It’s a good program for Märkl, who has made French music a specialty. Among other things, he has recorded a worthy Debussy cycle with the Orchestre National de Lyon on the Naxos label.

Friday night’s concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center got off to a slow start. Instead of launching immediately into Messiaen’s Un Sourire (A Smile), Märkl began with a windy background discussion of the piece, complete with orchestra demonstrations.  Messiaen composed Un Sourire to mark the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death in 1991. The work alternates between two themes, one gentle and serene, the other fidgety and manic. Apparently, this was supposed to suggest Mozart’s habit of smiling at his own adversity.

Messiaen’s view that Mozart lived a life of “sorrow, suffering, hunger and cold” is sentimental hogwash. Nevertheless, Un Sourire is a heartfelt tribute, and Märkl and the NSO gave the piece a worthy reading. The orchestra played the slow music with clarity and luminosity. Faster sections were played with energy and precision.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, which came next, is a work of unabashed, heart-on-the-sleeve romanticism. Korngold was one of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s best-known composers – his score for the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood won an Oscar. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that his violin concerto comes across as little more than a pastiche of discarded movie themes.

The young American violinist Stefan Jackiw (pronounced jacque-IF) milked this showpiece for all it was worth. He was always intensely in the moment, playing with melting lyricism and a fiery technique. Märkl and the NSO stuck with him like glue, providing sparkling and dramatic support.

The highlight of Friday’s concert came after intermission, when Märkl led the NSO in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14. This wasn’t a perfect reading. Märkl’s interpretation lacked a sure sense of the work’s overall architecture – it felt as if we were listening to five separate pieces instead of an interconnected whole. There were also flaws in the ensemble – the brass and percussion weren’t always together, especially at the end.

Still, Märkl and the NSO got the essentials right. They managed to convey the work’s passion and reverie. And they delivered in the end a high-voltage performance that beautifully showcased this orchestra’s virtuosity. The program repeats one more time (8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3), and anyone who appreciates high symphonic drama would be well-advised to attend.

 

If you go

Nashville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jun Märkl performs the music of Messiaen, Korngold and Berlioz. Violinist Stefan Jackiw solos in Korngold’s Violin Concerto. The concert begins at 8 p.m. at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $23 to $109. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.

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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.