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Music review: Nashville Symphony opens new season in high style – at the Schermerhorn!

giancarlonewFew season openers have been loaded with as much deep meaning as the one the Nashville Symphony Orchestra presented Thursday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. That’s because this season could have easily never happened.

The orchestra spent much of last season embroiled in a financial crisis, and it just barely avoided a foreclosure on its acoustically marvelous concert hall. An eleventh-hour deal with Bank of America narrowly averted that disaster in late June. But no sooner had that problem been solved then the symphony found itself in tense negations with its musicians over the terms of a new contract. That crisis was resolved, at least temporarily, just last week when the players agreed to a one-year deal that cuts their compensation by 15 percent.

On Thursday, the orchestra’s summer of high drama seemed like a distant memory. The classical fans who packed the Schermerhorn seemed to be genuinely thrilled to have their orchestra back in a concert hall that still belonged to a symphony instead of a hedge fund. For their parts, music director Giancarlo Guerrero and his players seemed genuinely glad (not to mention relieved) to be there. More than once, Guerrero was seen holding his hand to his heart as he blew kisses to the audience.  The musicians responded in their own way, with playing that simply sizzled.

In that respect, the orchestra’s all-Russian concert helped matters considerably. The first two works on the program, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, are sure-fire crowd pleasers. The final piece, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, took us on an hour-long emotional journey that ended, as an evening like this should, in sunlit triumph.

Guerrero led the Mussorgsky in grand style, wiggling the fingers of his left hand frenetically to elicit the biggest, most unrestrained and over-the-top vibratos possible from his orchestra. This seemed only fitting, since Night on Bald Mountain is supposed to conjure images of a wild witch’s sabbath. The musicians brought the music to life with menacing strings and shrieking wind and brass playing.

JoyceYangPianist Joyce Yang made a big impression in the Prokofiev concerto. She played the work’s virtuoso passages with fleet-fingered agility, and she brought an ethereal lyricism to slower sections. It’s worth noting that Yang is a small and thin young woman, and as such she seemed to be a size too small for this dauntingly difficult concerto. I often found myself wanting more sound from the piano and, when that failed to materialize, more restraint from the orchestra. But none of that seemed to bother the audience, which gave Yang a rousing ovation. She rewarded the crowd with an encore performance of Earl Wild’s virtuoso etude on Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”

There were no shortcomings in Guerrero and the orchestra’s rendition of the Shostakovich symphony. Guerrero struck a tragic note in the extended first movement that was devastatingly effective, and he engaged in a mock dance as he conducted the heavy-footed scherzo. The third movement is the heart of this symphony, and Guerrero conducted it with dreamlike melancholy – the pathos was palpable. The heroic finale, meanwhile, was brimming with optimism. After all the storm and stress of last year, one could hardly have found a better way to start the new season.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony performs “Russian Spectacular” at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6 and Saturday, Sept 7 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $27 to $138. Call 615-687-6500 or click here.

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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.