Concertgoers to last week’s season opener for the Nashville Symphony Pops series might have been forgiven a momentary confusion on entering TPAC’s Jackson Hall. It appeared as if Judy Collins, the guest artist for the evening, might have been engaged to sing Magna Peccatrix in Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand,” so massive were the orchestral and choral forces arrayed. It was quite obvious that a splash would be madeand it was. It began with the women of the symphony chorus in a splendid Holstian introduction to “Magic to Do” from Pippin, and it didn’t quit till the last strains of “Amazing Grace” died an hour-and-a-half later. In between there was much to praise.
Although the evening was most definitely a collaborative affair between orchestra, chorus, and soloist, make no mistake, Judy Collins was the star that most of the audience had come to hear. I do not think a single listener departed unmoved. Does Collins preserve her voice in aspic? Is it taken out at night and put in formaldehyde? If it does not have the full measure of freshness that it did some quarter of a century ago, its finesse and clarity are in no way diminished. Combined with an intelligent approach to phrase that only a poet can appreciate, Collins’ passionate delivery made for a performance that most operatic sopranos can only dream about. Particularly in Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now” as well as her own song remembering her great-grandmother, Collins displayed a freedom of phrase that transformed the prosaic and mundane details of daily life into intimations of immortality.
Nothing was less than very good, but Collins’ rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Marika” was electrifying. It was the passionate high point of the evening, with her voice alternating between its most pristine clarity and the throatiness reminiscent of a lifetime of Sweet Caporals and nights in small cafés. Her lightning switches between French, Dutch, Flemish, and English were a wonder, and the performance was phenomenal. Only toward the end of her set did Collins’ voice begin to show the wear of more than 30 years of constant singing, but even as her own improvised descant on the final verse of “Amazing Grace” soared in an envoi for the evening, the sweetness remained.
The Nashville Symphony Chorus did well by the old hymn tune as well. The bloom of sound as harmony was added to the choral arrangement was like a flower unfolding, and their strong support was notable for good enunciation and blended sound. The chorus members were at their best in a rousing arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Another Op’nin, Another Show”; they handled the syncopations in the tune very well for so large an ensemble. And they were at their very best in an arrangement of Stephen Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By” that was marked by some structural and harmonic touches that smacked of Hindemith.
Unfortunately, such was not the case throughout the rest of the evening. Most of the other numbers involving the chorus were an example of overkill. “One” from Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line needed the chorus line, not a chorus. Things were just too elephantine for so slight a tune. Mention must also be made of the energetic performance by soprano Ginger Newman, who served as soloist in the first half of the concert. She has a powerful voice and a fine ability to get a lyric across. One of her best vocal tricks is a long note begun without vibrato, but she should be very careful not to ruin her voice by its overuse.
With all this talk of vocal performances, let’s not forget that this was a symphony pops concert. Conductor Tom Mitchell didn’t. Sprinkled in the numbers were some selections that allowed the orchestra to strut its stuff. I was particularly pleased by the performance of the overture to Girl Crazy by George Gershwin.
This whole concert found the NSO’s brasses in top form; Collins and the chorus may have taken the spotlight, but I have seldom heard either the trumpet or trombone section sound quite as good as when they were playing the Gershwin or Ferde Grofé’s Mardi Gras movement from the almost forgotten Mississippi Suite. While orchestral praise is being doled out, the percussionistsand that combination of strings and percussion, the pianoshould come in for their share. Several times, I caught myself noting just the right touch of color from Charlene Harb at the keyboard, and the evening’s indefatigable drummer kept things going.
In the matter of judging orchestral balance, amplification was a constant problem at this concert. Surely a symphony-sized string section does not need assistance from the PA. Ditto for a woodwind section adequate for Wagner, and triple ditto for a 200-voice chorus. It is understandable that soloists like Judy Collins and Ginger Newman work with amplification in an orchestral setting, but using a sound system to make a harp sound louder than the whole viola section destroys the balance for which both players and conductor strive. I do not have space for a jeremiad on this concert’s sound, but suffice to say, it all too frequently resulted in mud.
I cannot let this opportunity go by without noting the passing of Nashville composer Lee Gannon. Profiled in these pages just a few weeks ago by Jim Ridley, Gannon was killed in a traffic accident last Monday night. In a culture where music identified as “serious” is all too often a warning of abstract banalities to come, Lee’s dedication to his audience was both remarkable and refreshing. He will be sorely missed.
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