Nashville’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.
Conrad 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.
IF YOU GO
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.