Music Review: Violinist Simone Porter and the NSO play Paganini with a vengeance

Simone_PorterMidway through violinist Simone Porter’s rendition of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra on Friday night, a jazz concert threatened to break out. No, Porter didn’t give a spontaneous performance of improvised music. Rather, her fiery, impassioned account of Paganini’s fiendishly difficult score prompted one concertgoer to forget his classical decorum, causing him to shout “yeah” in the middle of the first movement.

A Seattle, Wash., native who now studies at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, Porter is still a teenager. But on Friday night with the NSO under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero, she played like a seasoned professional. It’s hard to put a finger on what was most impressive about her performance, but I think it was the sheer joy she obviously derived from being onstage.

A charismatic performer, she approached her performance the way an opera diva might approach a role. As Guerrero led the orchestra in increasingly agitated music, Porter struck a dramatic pose, tossing her head back during climactic sections, brandishing her bow like a fencing saber.

She complemented her theatrics with dazzling playing. She has a technique that seemingly knows no difficulty, which allowed her to race through complex passages with accuracy and velocity. Her tone was silvery and her intonation was dead on. Guerrero and the orchestra, to their credit, kept pace with the soloist, providing accompaniment that was colorful and electric.

This weekend marks Porter’s debut with the Nashville Symphony. Violinist Itzhak Perlman once noted that any soloist with a medium degree of talent can make a debut with an orchestra, but only the gifted ones get invited back. I hope we hear Porter again.

Friday’s concert opened with one of the most agreeable overtures in the repertoire, contemporary American composer Tobias Picker’s Old and Lost Rivers. Picker found inspiration for this short, gentle work in a pair of bayous that feed the Trinity River near Houston, Texas. He suggests the openness of the landscape through widely spaced melodies that approach each other from opposite directions, like meandering waterways. The music is serene, atmospheric and intensely lyrical, and Guerrero and the NSO played it with sincere emotion.

Porter stole the show, but Richard Strauss and his Nietzschesque music gave the young fiddler a run for her money. Guerrero and the NSO closed Friday’s concert with Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony, 55 minutes of the most colorful, dramatic and densely orchestrated music in the repertoire. This is what you might call “kitchen sink” music, since the score includes everything but the proverbial wash basin. In addition to a full complement of strings, winds and brass, Strauss wrote for a battery of percussion that includes a wind and thunder machine.

The work is Alpine on a couple of levels. It’s mountainous in its size, scope and ambition. It’s also mountainous in its theme. Strauss’ music is intended to suggest a heroic (and harrowing) climb up the Alps. The score is filled with all manner of evocative effects. Cascading winds imply a waterfall, and sparkling brass suggest a gleaming glacier. Guerrero and the NSO are at their level best in late-Romantic music, and on Friday they gave a memorable performance of the Strauss. Guerrero conducted with sweep and a sure sense of this sprawling work’s architecture, making transitions from one Alpine scene to the next seem not just smooth but inevitable. The musicians, for their parts, played with color, emotion and edge-of-your-seat virtuosity.

The NSO is performing An Alpine Symphony once more this weekend. Strauss’ breathtaking sonic vistas should not to be missed.


The Nashville Symphony performs the music of Picker, Paganini and Strauss at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $22 to $138 are available 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.