Why on earth would Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra devote their entire concert this weekend at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center to the music of that arch-Romantic Sergei Rachmaninoff?
Because of that drop-dead gorgeous slow movement in the composer’s Second Symphony, that’s why. And while they were at it on Friday night, Guerrero and his musicians took the opportunity to explore some of this perennially popular composer’s less familiar early works.
The concert opened with Two Dances from Aleko, music from a one-act opera on gypsy themes that the prodigiously gifted Rachmaninoff composed as a graduation piece from the Moscow Conservatory. That Rachmaninoff resorted to stereotype and cliché in creating these two dances – Women’s Dance and Men’s Dance – should probably be forgiven. The composer, after all, had grown up in the decidedly unprogressive world of Tsarist Russia and was just 18 when he wrote the music.
That these pieces are positively brimming with color and vigor also argue in their favor. Women’s Dance is filled with exotic clarinet passages that call to mind Carmen at her sultriest, while Men’s Dance is delightfully brassy and muscular. Guerrero and the NSO played both works with polish and style.
During the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Dallas Morning News critic Scott Cantrell described the pianist Olga Kern as having a “bombs away style.” Kern was something of a carpet bomber back then, her playing fiery but not always accurate. On Friday night in Nashville, Kern played Rachmaninoff’s seldom-heard Piano Concerto No. 1 with precision-guided perfection.
Her performance of the concerto’s opening movement – seemingly one long series of double-fisted chords and octaves – was breathtaking. The most difficult feat in classical piano is playing loud and fast at the same time, and in that respect Kern produced a veritable Niagara of sound. Yet she was also capable of great lyricism (that ardent slow movement) and playfulness (that exuberant finale). Guerrero and the NSO provided Kern with dramatic and precise accompaniment from beginning to end. The performance won a rousing ovation, and Kern responded with one of the composer’s knuckle-busting miniatures.
Guerrero and the NSO concluded with the composer’s Symphony No. 2, a sprawling, plush carpet of a piece that boasts some of Rachmaninoff’s most memorable melodies. The strings were utterly ravishing, especially in the lustrous third-movement adagio. English horn, clarinet and French horn solos were also beautifully burnished.
Midway through the Second Symphony, I noticed that Greer had stopped playing and was frantically trying to retune a violin. Eventually he handed the instrument back to Iwasaki, who never missed a beat and kept playing beautifully. I assume that Iwasaki’s violin suffered some kind of hiccup, and Greer stepped in immediately to assist.
If I’m ever on an airplane that malfunctions, I want calm, cool professional types like Iwasaki and Greer in the cockpit.
IF YOU GO
Nashville Symphony under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero presents an all-Rachmaninoff concert. Pianist Olga Kern is soloist. The concert is 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $22 to $148 and are available here.