Classical review: Leonard Slatkin conducts ‘The Red Violin’ and other white-hot music

slatkinCheers and shouts of joy greeted the guest conductor as he walked onstage Thursday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. That courtesy seemed hardly surprising, since Nashville is a friendly town. But Leonard Slatkin was welcomed with the sort heartfelt warmth and enthusiasm that’s usually reserved for old friends.

For the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Slatkin is far more than a colleague and acquaintance. He’s an important mentor who conducted the NSO at the gala opening of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and who later helped the orchestra win its first three Grammy Awards. The bond between conductor and ensemble clearly remains strong, since the musicians played their collective hearts out for Slatkin on Thursday night.

The concert opened with España, French composer Emmanuel Chabrier’s tribute to Spain. This seven-minute charmer is filled with sonic impressions of Spanish folk and dance music. Slatkin proved to be an enthusiastic musical tour guide, leading the ensemble in a performance that was as lyrically spontaneous and it was rhythmically precise. It got the evening off to a festive start.

Next came one of Slatkin’s specialties, contemporary American composer John Corigliano’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra “Red Violin.” Corigliano derived this concerto from themes he wrote for the film “The Red Violin.” Unlike many Hollywood composers, who tend to write concert music that is overblown and derivative, Corigliano is the real deal. He is a master of form and orchestration, and his four-movement, 35-minute-long concerto is a serious and substantial work.

Indeed, Corigliano seemingly left no string technique or timbre untried. His score calls on the violinist to slide, pluck and hammer the bow against the strings. The orchestral writing is likewise filled with sparkling sound effects.

ElinaVahalaSlatkin and his soloist, violinist Elina Vähälä, played this music in all of its glistening glory. Vähälä’s performance had everything. She played lyrical passages with a silvery tone, and with an interpretive sweetness that was enough to melt one’s heart. In the concerto’s many daredevil sections, she played with power, precision and blistering speed. Like a first-rate musical magician, she made this virtuosic sleight of hand look easy. Slatkin (who conducted without a baton) and the NSO stuck to Vähälä like glue, keeping pace with her note-for-note even during the wild tempo accelerations in the finale.

Thursday’s concert ended with arguably the greatest free-standing variations in the orchestral repertoire, Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 “Enigma Variations.” This amazing piece, first performed in London in 1899, consists of a melancholy (and enigmatic) theme in G minor followed by 14 variations. Each variation is a sonic portrait of one of the composer’s friends and intimates. Variation 1 affectionately depicts Elgar’s wife Alice. Variation IX (titled “Nimrod”) is an emotional tribute to the music publisher August Jaeger. This serene variation – some of the most drop-dead gorgeous music ever written – recalls Jaeger’s eloquent musings about the sublime beauty of Beethoven’s symphonic slow movements.

Slatkin obviously knows the “Enigma Variations” cold, since he conducted it magnificently from memory. His was an interpretation in the grand manner, a reading that was smooth, flowing, often animated and always majestic.  It was an account that captured Elgar in all of his pomp and circumstance. Anglophiles and music connoisseurs alike would do well to attend one of this weekend’s repeat performances.

Here’s Giancarlo Guerrero talking about this weekend’s program:

IF YOU GO

Leonard Slatkin leads the Nashville Symphony in the music of Chabrier, Corigliano and Elgar. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, March 15 and Saturday March 16 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $28 to $115. 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.