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Classical review: Nashville Symphony sparkles in Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Schumann

grafHans Graf, a distinguished Austrian-born maestro, is on tap this weekend to conduct the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s classical program.  Graf is apparently a connoisseur of fine wine. Appropriately enough, his interpretations on Thursday night of Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Schumann came across as aromatic, effervescent and robust.

Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), which opened the Schermerhorn Symphony Center program, was the evening’s sweet and fragrant charmer. Initially composed as a piano duet and later expanded into a full orchestral suite, ‘Mother Goose’ is essentially a sonic storybook. It creates vivid images of colorful fairy tale characters. The plaintive sounds of the oboe suggest Beauty; the guttural growls of the contrabassoon are a convincing Beast. A sparkling harp, chirping piccolo and dreamy woodwinds provide the enchanting backdrop.

Graf, the Houston Symphony’s long-time music director, gave this music a relaxed reading. He mulled over every appealing melody, savored every pungent harmony. In the process, he revealed a veritable bouquet of orchestral color. At the same time, Graf never seemed to dawdle. He had a firm grasp of the work’s overall architecture, and his interpretation had an irresistible sense of flow. Consequently, each one of Ravel’s colorful character pieces blended beautifully into the next. The musicians, for their parts, responded brilliantly to this approach, and they played every note with precision and sensitivity.

fliterRavel once told the pianist Arthur Rubinstein that he learned the art of orchestration from studying Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22. It seemed only fitting that this glittering showpiece should come next on the program. I only wish that pianist Ingrid Fliter’s interpretation had been more to my taste. Her main goal, it seemed, was to play every note as fast as humanly possible.

She dashed off the opening “Andante sostenuto” without a hint of sostenuto – the sustained, prolonged attack that gives this music its sense of dark mystery.  Likewise, her performance of the final “Allegro molto vivace” was full of ferocity. But since her playing was always full tilt, she had no room to climax. Not surprisingly, the big chords near the end of the piece lacked resonance. They were just too rushed. Her account of the second movement scherzo, on the other hand, was terrific. Her sparkling sound and mercurial style seemed well suited to this quicksilver music. Needless to say, the audience loved Fliter’s barn-burner performance and gave her a rousing ovation.

The evening’s best performance came after intermission, with Graf’s thoroughly satisfying rendition of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61. This performance had everything – power, sweep, drama and affecting lyricism. Graf brought a sense of majesty and sunlit warmth to the outer movements, and he imbued the scherzo’s skittish patterns with nervous energy. The “Adagio expressive,” surely Schumann’s most gorgeous slow movement, was played with passion and commitment.

Graf, the wine aficionado, delivered Schumann at his vintage best. Symphony lovers would do well to savor one of this weekend’s repeat performances.

If you go

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra presents Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 (with pianist Ingrid Fliter) and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. Hans Graf conducts. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday Nov. 16 and Saturday Nov. 17 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $109. Call 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.