Classical review: NSO gives new meaning to the phrase ‘Ladies Night’

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra is calling its current program “A Woman’s Life,” a nod to the song cycle of the same name that’s anchoring this weekend’s concerts at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. I’d like to suggest a slightly different title: “Ladies Night.” That, at least, is my salute to the two female headliners, who both made lasting impressions on Thursday night.

brownSoprano Angela Brown dominated the stage during the concert’s first half with her larger-than-life rendition of American composer Richard Danielpour’s A Woman’s Life. After intermission, pianist Olga Kern ruled supreme in Rachmaninoff’s dauntingly difficult Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. Music director Giancarlo Guerrero and the NSO provided Brown with sensitive and supple accompaniment. With Kern and the Rach 3, well, let’s just say they managed to keep pace.

Danielpour’s A Woman’s Life uses seven of Maya Angelou’s poems to chronicle the life of a woman from childhood to old age. Two things struck me about the score. First, though it was well made, it nevertheless seemed a bit derivative. There were traces of Aaron Copland in the work’s serene opening chords, of George Gershwin in the song “Little Girl Speakings” and of Leonard Bernstein just about everywhere else. Needless to say the piece was lyrically appealing and luminous. Danielpour derives his ideas from the best.

Second, the vocal part seemed to lie uncomfortably low in this soprano’s tessitura. Perhaps Danielpour had Angelou’s smoky contralto in his inner ear when he composed the piece – he certainly didn’t seem to be thinking of the high C’s in Brown’s signature role of Aida. No matter. Brown made the most of her middle range, singing every note expressively and with a burnished sound. She certainly inhabited each song. She was all sweetness and light when singing the opening number, “Little Girl Speakings,” and she openly flirted with the audience in “Come and Be My Baby.”

I have to confess that Brown got to me in the last song, “Many and More.” Her sound was utterly translucent when she sang, “There is one and only one / who will give the air / from his failing lungs / for my body’s mend. / And that one is my love.”  The mood was transcendent.

Kern proved to be equally compelling in the Rachmaninoff. I first heard her play nearly a dozen years ago, right after her gold-medal win at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. She played with more of a bombs-away style back then, seemingly placing volume and velocity above all else.

kernI heard echoes of that at the Schermerhorn on Thursday night – she played the Rach 3’s finale at daredevil speed (Guerrero and the orchestra, to their credit, stuck to her like glue). But I also detected artistry and refinement. She seemed more like a collaborative pianist than a domineering soloist in the concerto’s first movement – her double-fisted rendition of the cadenza being the exception. She was thoughtful and probing in the intermezzo.

Thursday’s concert opened with the music of another great contemporary American composer – Roberto Sierra’s Carnaval. Sierra’s piece could be subtitled “Carnival of the Mythical Animals.” Each of the five movements is named for a legendary beast – gargoyle, sphinx, unicorn, dragon and phoenix. Sierra’s vivid orchestration suggests the character of each creature: the unicorn is gentle and luminous; the sphinx mysterious and atmospheric; and so on.

Guerrero and the NSO had little trouble taming this menagerie. Their performance was full of color, energy and sweep, and it earned the group considerable applause. It was an auspicious beginning of the NSO’s 2012-13 SunTrust Classical Series. Let’s hope the carnival continues, and we hear more such performances in the months ahead.

If you go

Nashville Symphony Orchestra performs Richard Danielpour’s A Woman’s Life (with soprano Angela Brown) and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (with pianist Olga Kern). Roberto Sierra’s Carnaval rounds out the program. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21 and Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $39 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.