Classical review: Tovey leads NSO in all that classical jazz

bramwellAnyone doubting the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s commitment to the music of living composers should pay close attention to the podium this weekend. There will be a composer standing on it.

Bramwell Tovey, a right proper English maestro, is in town this weekend to conduct the NSO’s classical series concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. For the past dozen years, Tovey has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. He’s also been a busy composer, writing music for orchestra, chorus and film – his 2003 Requiem for a Charred Skull won a Juno Award.

Thursday’s program opened with one of Tovey’s own works, Urban Runway, a colorful, rhythmically vivacious overture that owes much to the composer’s love of jazz. Tovey found inspiration for the piece in the hauteur and couture of the fashion conscious. Apparently, people who shop at New York’s and Los Angeles’ elite clothing stores walk with an extra spring in their step. Their “urban runway” is the sidewalk, where they strut and flaunt fine apparel.

Urban Runway uses a traditional cakewalk rhythm to suggest this grandiose swagger. A bubbling ostinato pattern propels the music forward. Spicy jazz harmonies, meanwhile, provide attitude and edge. NSO musicians clearly enjoyed this jaunty piece, since they played every note with gusto.

wilsonTovey’s jazz-infused Urban Runway established just the right mood for the next piece, George Gershwin’s urbane Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. The soloist this weekend is a familiar face. Pianist Terrence Wilson played on the NSO’s Grammy Award-winning recording of composer Michael Daugherty’s Deux ex Machina. Wilson knows the NSO and is comfortable playing with it. Not surprisingly, his Gershwin interpretation was fully satisfying.

Throughout much of the performance, Tovey and Wilson seemed almost like foils. In the opening “Allegro,” Tovey emphasized the vigorous Charleston rhythms. Wilson, meanwhile, clearly wanted to linger over Gershwin’s most languorous melodies. There were equally enjoyable contrasts in the “Adagio – Andante con moto.” Tovey made the orchestra’s bluesy theme seem almost like an atmospheric nocturne. Wilson turned the solo part into crisp promenade. Conductor and soloist were of one mind in the finale, a perpetual motion piece played with pulsating energy.

Many of Britain’s greatest early 20th-century composers were drawn to English folk music – the works of Ralph Vaughan Williams come readily to mind. William Walton, whose Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor closed the concert, was fixated on Sibelius. Like the great Finnish composer, Walton liked to ground his symphonies in massive pedal tones (sustained bass notes that call to mind throbbing organ pedal notes) that gave his music a tragic, even cataclysmic feel. Tovey and the NSO played this up in the first movement, with a rendition that was dark and muscular.

The second movement is marked “Presto, con malizia” (with malice). The malice would seem to be the unforgiving, constant shifting of rhythmic patterns. The NSO played this music with precision and virtuosity. Tovey brought just the right amount of melancholy to the “Andante.” The orchestra played the finale with energy and joy, bringing this heretofore tragic symphony to a sunlit conclusion.

If you go

The Nashville Symphony performs the music of Tovey, Gershwin and Walton. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30 and Saturday, Dec. 1 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $39 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.