Nashville Chamber Orchestra and Nashville Ballet
8 p.m. Oct. 5 and 2 & 8 p.m. Oct. 6 in TPAC’s Polk Theater
Tickets avail. through Ticketmaster, 255-9600 or www.ticketmaster.com
For a decade now, Paul Gambill’s Nashville Chamber Orchestra has performed audacious “classical music” in Music City. That audacity has earned NCO strong and loyal supporters. But it has raised eyebrows too. Some people have claimed that NCO is not a classical ensemble at allthat Gambill is trying to have it both ways by playing a couple mainstream classical numbers, but then showcasing admired Nashville singers and singer-songwriters to lure most of his listeners.
In truth, NCO’s success has not come from its mainline classical repertory. It has come from newly commissioned music that either features Music Row artists or transmutes authentic country music materials into compositions featured on National Public Radio’s Performance Today, the premier radio showcase for classical music. On the broadcast, NCO regularly shares the airwaves with repertory that defines what classical music means to most earsBach and Mozart and Beethoven and other such luminaries now silent in their graves.
The fact that NCO’s new commissions are making their presence known on a program like Performance Today is an indication that perhaps 21st-century ears are beginning to open to “classical music” by composers who still have a pulse. Certainly NCO is underwriting music that attempts to do what composers from Bach to Bartók to Mark O’Connor have always done: Find raw material in the music that pleases provincial ears and make it pleasing to sophisticated ones.
Most NCO performances aired by NPR have been composed or arranged by Conni Ellisor, the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. These have emulated the best features of authentic country musicits clear and simple musical idiom, and its narrative genius, rooted in traditional songs that tell dramatic stories. But Ellisor, a classically trained, consummately professional, and extremely versatile musician who makes her livingas most NCO players dothrough Nashville’s commercial recording studios, can perform or arrange in whatever style is required, on her own or as a collaborator. NCO’s commissions enable her to marry rigorous classical discipline and archetypal Nashville materials in her original compositions. One of the loveliest of these conjugations is “Blackberry Winter,” a concerto for mountain dulcimer and string orchestra, which NCO premiered in 1996, and which has been aired on Performance Today.
Ellisor figures prominently in this season’s opening NCO concert, which typifies, in Gambill’s words, “what we do.” NCO will perform two mainstream classical masterworks, and it will premiere a new Ellisor composition. The evening will open with the Concerto Grosso No. 1 by Ernst Bloch (d. 1959). It will include the Divertimento for Strings by Béla Bartók (d. 1945). And it will present the first public performance of an Ellisor work-in-progress based on the famous Tennessee ghost story about the Bell Witch. Such programming sets up an interactive resonance between the familiar and the fresh that, at its best, renews one and enriches both.
But NCO’s approach in this season opener is new also in another way: NCO joins forces with Nashville Ballet, and each of the selections (except the Bartók) has been choreographed. The audience will hear some new music; it will also see that music in newly imagined dynamic spatial forms actualized by talented dancers.
Paul Vasterling, Nashville Ballet’s artistic director since 1998, says, “Nashville Ballet’s programming is all about making art that has a distinct, original voice.” NCO’s Paul Gambill saw “a kindred spirit in [Vasterling’s] innovative approach to programming.” And Vasterling saw in their collaboration an opportunity to continue “making work that resonates in the Nashville community.”
The program at TPAC’s Polk Theater is well chosen to showcase both organizations. It opens with NCO in the orchestra pit playing the Bloch concerto, to which the ballet dances “Reunions.” David Allan’s daring choreography, commissioned by New York City Ballet in 1992, requires powerful athleticism from six dancers as they repeatedly unite, separate, and reunite to create a work of explosive energy.
This is followed by a more abstract and lyrical dance called “Kith,” which Vasterling choreographed to a pair of songs taken from a collaborative song cycle NCO commissioned some years ago. The cycle as a whole was uneven and disappointing. But these two songs are gems, and make a lovely diptych about familial relationships. The first, “My Softest Heart,” was co-written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Ellisor; it will be sung by Kathy Chiavola. The second, “Beloved Enemy,” was co-written by Gretchen Peters and Ellisor; Peters herself will sing it.
“Kith” is followed by Ellisor’s “The Bell Witch.” This is the first finished episode of what is conceived as a full-scale ballet project. Anne-Marie DeAngelo, formerly with the Joffrey Ballet, has choreographed an “eerie yet playful” selection in which the natural human inclinations of a young man and woman are transformed by the witch into ridiculous, puppet-like behavior.
After an intermission, the orchestra pit will be raised to stage level, and NCO will perform, without dancers, the Bartók Divertimentoa piece well suited to this program. Bartók transfigures melodies and rhythms from what might be called Hungarian bluegrass into brilliant sophisticated string-orchestra sound.
The pit descends again and the dancers return, as NCO and fiddle virtuoso Crystal Plohman conclude the program with “Harvest Home Suite,” co-written by Ellisor with fiddler Jay Ungar and guitarist Molly Mason, who performed the premiere with NCO in 1998. The suite’s Appalachian-based music and its beginning-middle-end dramatic structure prompted North Carolina choreographer Heather Maloy to imagine it telling a Civil War story about separation and loss and endurance. The music treats Appalachia as Bartók does Hungary, and the choreography emulates that. It is grounded in classical ballet, but as Maloy says, it is “extremely contemporary, integrating a lot of modern vocabulary as well as elements of Appalachian folk dancing.” It should give the evening a powerfully moving conclusion.
This NCO/Ballet collaboration promises much. Though neither the music nor the dancing is “modern” in the screechy sense, both are contemporary and audaciousjust what these companies ought to be doing.
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