Music Review: Nashville Symphony, giving Joan Tower and Beethoven their due

towerAmerican composer Joan Tower and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra are like old friends. In 2008, the NSO won its first three Grammy Awards for its recording of the composer’s Made In America. Clearly, Tower’s angular, muscular music appeals to NSO musicians.

Tower is back in Nashville this weekend to hear the NSO and its music director, Giancarlo Guerrero, perform another two of her works – Stroke (2010) and Violin Concerto (1991). Both pieces received thrilling readings during Thursday’s opening-night concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Arranged in one movement and lasting about 17 minutes, Stroke was a deeply felt sonic reaction to a loved one’s physical illness. Tower wrote the piece after her younger brother George suffered a paralyzing stroke. Her work readily conveyed the emotional upheaval one experiences after a traumatic, life-altering event. The music veered wildly between passages of extraordinary agitation and repose. An insistent, steady pulse mimicked a pounding heart. Guerrero and the NSO nailed this piece with a reading that was full of color, expression and nervous energy.

choTower’s Violin Concerto makes extreme technical and interpretive demands on the soloist. So it’s a good thing that the great Taiwanese-American violinist Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin is in town this weekend to play it. On Thursday, Lin played this fiendishly difficult one-movement concerto with a golden tone, commanding technique and unfailing sense of the lyrical line. He dispatched quicksilver notes and double stops with easy elegance, and he played lyrical sections with seriousness and sensitivity.

Tower composed this concerto in 1991 for the great American violinist Elmar Oliveira, whose brother, also a gifted violinist, died that same year. As a tribute to Oliveira’s brother, Tower included extended passages for two violins. Lin and NSO concertmaster Jun Iwasaki played this complex, interweaving music with grace and taste. Guerrero and the NSO, for their parts, played with great drama, tossing melodies back and forth with Lin as if engaged in an animated conversation.

The NSO is recording this weekend’s performances of Tower’s music for future release on Naxos, the same label that issued the Grammy-winning Made In America. It’s impossible to say whether this weekend’s performances will garner any awards. Nevertheless, they were winning renditions, and the composer, who was in the hall on Thursday night, won a justly deserved standing ovation.

Thursday’s concert ended with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 “Eroica.”  The NSO’s rendition often struck me as more elegant than heroic. I admired the polish and precision that Guerrero brought to the music. Still, I prefer a more visceral “Eroica.”

Nevertheless, there were many highlights. The opening “Allegro con brio” was bold and brisk, and the famous “Marcia funebre” was darkly mellifluous. There was energy aplenty in the outer sections of the “Scherzo,” though I was mostly taken with the warmly lyrical horn playing of Leslie Norton and Beth Beeson in the trio section. The finale was a blaze of glory. Guerrero and his musicians played  this music as if their lives depended on it. For that they won an appropriately heroic ovation.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Symphony performs the music of Beethoven and Tower. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22 and Saturday, Nov. 23 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.