Music Review: Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony score with the music of Sibelius and Elgar

guerrerosideThe Nashville Symphony Orchestra is widely admired for its interpretations of contemporary American music. Yet the orchestra is arguably at its level best when playing late-Romantic music from the turn of the 20th century.

Two such works were on the NSO’s program on Thursday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Music director Giancarlo Guerrero led his players in an incandescent account of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E minor. Elgar’s supremely challenging Violin Concerto in B minor, performed with virtuosic flair by violinist James Ehnes, was also on the bill. The program repeats at 8 p.m. Friday, March 28 and Saturday, March 29.

Sibelius’ First Symphony, completed in 1899, often draws comparisons to Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. There is a certain Tchaikovsky-like, heart-on-sleeve sensitivity in parts of the score, especially in the fourth movement. Still, Sibelius’ propulsive rhythms, savage expressions and austere textures are unmistakably his own.

Guerrero was in his element in this music. His reading of the first movement was full of sweep and drama – his gestures were so big in climactic sections that one half-suspected that he might levitate off the podium, lost in Leonard Bernstein-like emotionalism. Every section of the orchestra played with polish and precision, but principal clarinetist James Zimmerman deserved special mention for the soulful solo that opened the symphony.

The second-movement Andante came across as a kind of glistening “Song of the North,” while the third-movement Scherzo was boisterously playful. Guerrero and his players gave the long, agitated and often disjointed fourth movement a boldly impassioned performance.  After years of listening to this finale, I’m not sure I fully comprehend it. I suspect that some in the audience felt the same way. Nashvillians tend to give everything they hear a standing ovation, both as a matter of reflex and decorum. Applause for the Sibelius, however, was sincere but restrained.

ehnesThe audience felt no such inhibitions after Ehnes played Elgar’s long, lyrical and ridiculously difficult Violin Concerto. A 38-year-old Canadian-born violinist, Ehnes’ artistry was apparent the moment he dug his bow into the strings of his 299-year-old Stradivarius. His tone was lustrous and golden, and his technique was so commanding that one was hardly aware of the score’s supreme challenges – Ehnes made it all look easy.

There were many highlights – the ensemble’s immaculate sense of line in the first movement, the warmth and immediacy in the second. But I’ll never forget Ehnes’ transcendental rendition of the third movement’s extended cadenza, which sounded thoughtful and blisteringly virtuosic at the same time.

The Elgar concerto is a hard act to follow, so for encores violinists tend to favor the unaccompanied violin music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  Ehnes closed with a deeply felt account of the Largo from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony performs the music of Sibelius and Elgar at 8 p.m. Friday, March 28 and Saturday, March 29 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $138. Call 687-6400 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.