Classical review: Conductor Alastair Willis is back with Beethoven

For its second Beethoven festival concert of the summer season, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra joined forces with an old friend.

alastairAlastair Willis, who led the NSO in a Grammy-nominated recording of Ravel a few years ago, was back on the podium on Friday night as guest conductor. The musicians must have been glad to have him back, because the NSO has seldom sounded so good.

There was much to admire in Willis’ conducting, but two things stood out. First, he was a real detail man. His cues were spot-on, his accents all had the right amount of emphasis and his dynamic shadings were seemingly scientific in their precision – in his magnificent account of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, for example, you could actually hear a big difference between soft (piano) and very soft (pianissimo) playing. Yet Willis never lost sight of the big picture, and his interpretations all had a clear sense of musical line. Apparently, he could admire Beethoven’s trees but still be aware of the breadth of the composer’s vast forest.

Friday’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center concert opened with a polished account of the Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. Beethoven composed this music in 1800 as part of a full-length ballet. The NSO’s reading was all lightness and brightness, which is what you expect to hear in a classical dance piece. My only complaint was that the performance was almost too elegant and polite. I like to hear a little more fist shaking in Beethoven’s music.

There were no inhibitions in pianist William Wolfram’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 “Emperor.” Wolfram’s playing was big, wolframmuscular and dramatic. His specialty seemed to be the crescendo – he liked to start these passages pianississimo and end them fortississimo (and never mind that Beethoven included no ppp’s and, as far as I can remember, only one fff marking in the entire 40-minute score). Wolfram also had the tendency to push tempos, especially when octaves were involved. Fortunately, Willis proved to be a good wingman, and so the NSO always flew in a tight formation with the soloist. It was a barnstorming performance and, of course, it won a rousing ovation.

The highlight of the evening came after intermission, with Willis and the NSO’s rendition of the Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92. This performance was satisfying from beginning to end. The first movement was brimming with vitality, the second movement was deeply emotional (I wanted to hold my breath during pianissimo sections) and the third movement was appropriately dramatic. Richard Wagner once famously referred to the finale of the Seventh Symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance.” Willis apparently agreed and delivered a performance that was like a joyous jig.

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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.