Classical review: NSO lights up the Schermerhorn with Strauss, Mozart

guerrerosideFor his first program of the New Year, Giancarlo Guerrero is leading the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in two virtuosic showpieces, one bona fide masterpiece and an unjustly neglected gem.

Richard Strauss’ Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks served as glittering, prismatic bookends at the NSO’s concert Thursday at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. These sparkling tone poems, which opened and closed the concert, are among the most technically demanding works in orchestral repertoire. Guerrero and the NSO gave both thrilling readings.

Strauss’ Don Juan isn’t the unrepentant rake portrayed in the Mozart opera. He’s an adventurer in search of feminine perfection. On Thursday night, Guerrero reimagined the famed flirt as a kind swashbuckling Harrison Ford. Guerrero brought out all of the dash and heroism in this music. His was a fired-up performance full of tension and thrust. Using big, sweeping gestures, Guerrero called on his musicians to play with unbounded energy. They responded with an exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat performance.

Till Eulenspiegel is a very different character. He’s a prankster, a master of mayhem, a sort of sonic Jim Carrey. The gripe one often hears about this piece is that its humor is too heavy, too Teutonic. Guerrero’s interpretation more or less annihilates this complaint. His Till Eulenspiegel is full of merriment and mirth. On Thursday, the musicians seemed to revel in all of the shenanigans, and they made the most of Strauss’ cartoonish sound effects, from bloated, pompous bassoons to a giggling clarinet.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 is the musical heart of this weekend’s program. This late masterpiece, composed in 1788, just three years before the composer’s death, is among the most lyrical of Mozart’s symphonies. Indeed, this sweetly flowing work often comes across as a kind of opera buffa without words. There’s plenty of sunny optimism in the overture-like first movement, and the fleet finale resembles an exuberant operatic climax. All that’s missing is a cast in period costumes singing about the fickleness of love.

Guerrero approached this piece with the intimacy of chamber music. Gone, banished for the duration of this interpretation, was this maestro’s trademark podium choreography. For much of the performance, Guerrero led with few gestures. He gave a downbeat here, cued an entrance there. Mostly, he stepped back and allowed the musicians to make music on their own. The result was a reading that was as spontaneous as it was elegant.

kohPolish composer Karol Szymanowski (pronounced shih-man-OFF-ski) composed his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1916. The work is seldom heard in the United States – the NSO is giving its maiden performance of it this weekend. On Thursday night, violinist Jennifer Koh made a compelling case for this unfamiliar work.

Lasting about 25 minutes and arranged in one movement, this work is a kind of extended reverie for solo violin. The violinist spends much of her time playing achingly beautiful melodies in the instrument’s highest register. Playing these stratospheric themes in tune would seem to be the violinist’s greatest technical challenge. Koh played this music with a melting tone and sensitivity. Guerrero and the NSO played the colorful, exotic score with nuance. It was a remarkably thoughtful and imaginative reading, and it bodes well for the rest of the year.

Photo credits: Guerrero and NSO by Bill Steber; Jennifer Koh by Janette Beckman

If you go

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra performs the music of Strauss, Mozart and Szymanowski. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11 and Saturday, Jan. 12 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $28 to $115. Call (615) 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.