Music Review: Nashville Symphony and Chorus pay tribute to Stephen Paulus

chorusYou’d be hard-pressed to find a more touching and tasteful beginning of a program than the one the Nashville Symphony Orchestra is presenting this weekend at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Music director Giancarlo Guerrero and the NSO are devoting their performances to American composer Stephen Paulus, who died last month, just days after Guerrero and the orchestra released a new album of the composer’s music. Thursday’s concert opened with Paulus’ Veil of Tears, a deeply affecting work derived from the composer’s expansive Holocaust Oratorio. Paulus’ music is short – it lasts a mere four minutes – but it’s filled with searing emotion, and the NSO played it with immediacy and sensitivity.

As soon as the final strains of Paulus’ music died away – in complete and utter silence – the luminous, life-affirming sound of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem filled the hall. Guerrero programed Duruflé’s 1947 setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Deceased last year, but on Thursday it served as an appropriate (if initially unintended) tribute to Paulus.

Duruflé’s nine-part Requiem is based on medieval Gregorian chant themes. His thoroughly modern treatment of the music, however, disguises its antiquarian influence. Duruflé decorates the music with harmonies reminiscent of Ravel and Messiaen without compromising the sweet simplicity of the old, sorrowful melodies.

One could not have hoped for a better performance than the one the Nashville Symphony Chorus gave on Thursday night. The singers, expertly prepared by chorus director Kelly Corcoran, sang every note with color and nuance, intoning gentle melodies with a translucent pianissimo sound, singing dramatic sections with passion, power and thunderous volume.

This weekend’s program concludes with one of the grizzly bears of the piano repertoire, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major. Consisting of four movements instead of the usual three, this concerto is longer (at 50 minutes) than any of the composer’s symphonies, and it makes extreme technical and musical demands on the pianist.

The soloist, Spanish pianist Joaquin Achúcarro, often seemed out of his depth. In the lengthy and demanding first movement, his playing was frequently labored, his phrasing choppy. His interpretation of the second movement scherzo likewise lacked the necessary heroic sweep. Seldom did he evidence any sense of the work’s overall architectural shape, since his playing always seemed to be absorbed in the struggle of the moment.

That said, there were some beautiful moments, especially in the slow third movement, where Achúcarro engaged principal cellist Anthony LaMarchina in an intensely lyrical dialogue. Guerrero and the NSO, for their parts, accompanied with color and feeling.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21 and Saturday, Nov. 22 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are available 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.