Music Review: Nashville Symphony puts the pedals to the metal in Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony

guerrerosideNashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center is equipped with one of the finest concert organs in the country. So it comes as no surprise to see Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony pop up on Nashville Symphony Orchestra programs from time to time.

On Friday night, music director Giancarlo Guerrero led the NSO in a bracing rendition of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 “Organ Symphony.” Also on the program was Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major (with the prodigious pianist Conrad Tao playing the orchestra’s Steinway). The program repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Schermerhorn.

Most people probably think of Rossini as a composer of comic opera – the ubiquitous presence of his scores in the old Looney Tunes cartoons along with the evergreen popularity of Barber of Seville are likely to blame. Yet Rossini wrote his fair share of epic historical operas, including Semiramide.

There was certainly plenty of epic drama in Guerrero’s reading of Rossini’s curtain raiser. He conducted climatic sections with fist-shaking intensity, which contrasted nicely with the lighthearted lyricism of the quiet passages. This was a colorful rendition, and every section of the orchestra played splendidly – the strings were delightfully skittish, the horns were warm and expressive and winds were bright and appealing. The performance established a pleasurable mood that lasted the rest of the evening.

For Winter Arts PreviewConrad Tao, the soloist in the Ravel concerto, is just 19, but he has already shown considerable promise as a pianist, violinist and composer. Certainly, there was much to admire in his performance Friday night. He played the concerto’s fast outer movements with lots of razzle and dazzle, and he performed the slow second movement with simplicity, immediacy and heart-felt emotion.

Not everything about Tao’s performance was to my taste. His steely, brittle tone seemed better suited to Prokofiev than to Ravel. Certainly, an effervescent sound would have brought out more of this concerto’s  jazzy, sultry mood. All the same, Tao plays a mean keyboard, and he won a standing ovation. Tao appreciated the gesture, and after commenting on the evening’s surprisingly cold temperature, he proceeded to play a hot encore, Gershwin’s boisterous Prelude No. 1.

The highlight of the concert came after intermission, with the NSO’s glorious account of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. Guerrero and the NSO excel in these late-Romantic blockbusters, with their renditions revealing that these warhorses can also be serious pieces of music. That was the case with the Organ Symphony. Guerrero and his players performed with passion and poetry throughout the performance. Tempos were brisk, textures were transparent and the tone was lustrous.

If you’ve never heard the Martin Foundation Organ, which caused the entire concert hall to shake on Friday night, then you owe it to yourself to catch the repeat performance.


Nashville Symphony Orchestra plays Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major and Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. The performance is 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $23 to $138 and are available by calling 687-6400 or clicking 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), 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.


  1. Gary Stewart says:

    Hi John,
    Your review is, as usual, right on target. I had the privilege of hearing Rossini’s Overture and Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony twice yesterday (once at the Coffee Classics in the morning and the second time last evening). What a treat!
    I don’t know if you ever attend the Classical Conversations at 7:00 prior to the concert in the Balcony Lobby, but they are as enjoyable (if not more so) than the concerts themselves. Giancarlo is outstanding when he is presenting at these sessions since he is so dramatic and loves to teach. The attendance has grown so much that at recent concerts the available seating is filled at least by 6:45. That means patrons who arrive later must stand resulting in the Lobby being packed with many folks having to stand.
    I have tried on several occasions to discuss this with NSO officials and have asked them to develop new seating plans for these programs. When the Schermerhorn first opened, they were held in the Curb Room which provides much more seating area. The experience is not nearly as good there, though, as it is in the Balcony Lobby. However, with a huge percentage of attendees being elderly, it is important to provide seating for them. When the Symphony performed at TPAC, they held these programs on the main stage prior to opening the doors for concert goers. That is one option that could be considered — using Laura Turner Concert Hall. The program only lasts for 30 minutes, so they could still open the doors to the Hall at 7:30.
    I have had no luck at all in getting anyone to listen to me about this, and I wonder if you might address it at some point. It is a huge negative that puts a sour taste in the mouths of those patrons who want to attend the Conversations but who need to sit down rather than stand. Thanks!

  2. Hi Gary! Thanks for your thoughtful note. I have not attended the Conversations program, though now you have made me curious. I can’t comment on the seating since I have not attended, but I will definitely let you know what I think after the next Conversations. All the best, John