Art Vs. Commerce 

Nashville Symphony offers pops concerts to attract new listeners

Nashville Symphony offers pops concerts to attract new listeners

Nashville Symphony w/Don McLean

8 p.m. Nov. 24-25

Nashville Convention Center, 601 Commerce St.

Call Ticketmaster at 255-9600 for ticket information

A few weeks ago, the Nashville Symphony made its debut in Carnegie Hall, presenting itself as a serious maker of serious music. This presentation was acutely and substantially applauded by Allan Kozinn in The New York Times and added a valuable overtone to the sound of “Music City” in national ears. It’s worth noting, though, that a substantial portion of that Carnegie Hall audience consisted of Nashvillians who traveled to New York to support the home team. Now all those applaudees have come home, and, in A.E. Housman’s words, “the world, it was the old world yet.”

In other words, it’s business as usual once again for the Nashville Symphony. People may travel hundreds of miles to see the ensemble perform in Carnegie Hall, but not enough people are coming out to hear them make music in TPAC. Our Symphony is not alone in this. All signs are, the same holds true everywhere. The most prestigious and best-endowed ensembles play to unfilled and ever older houses.

A lot of factors bear on this problem. But maybe the most important is that the very idea of “serious” music turns off a lot of potential listeners. The phrase “classical music” commonly evokes steroidal Romanticism—Beethoven for professional wrestlers. And “modern” music often evokes cerebral cacophony. Both these responses mistake a twig for a tree, but they are widespread nevertheless, and they force classical ensembles to play it safe when it comes to programming work by unfamiliar or 20th-century composers.

So contemporary classical music lives under house arrest, unable to expand beyond the very narrow parameters in which it is allowed to exist. In country music and in other varieties of popular music, new work is not only welcomed, it is demanded. But current classical composers go mostly unheard. For example, almost nobody I know is acquainted with a New York-based group called Absolute Ensemble, led by Estonian-born founder/director Kristjan Järvi. On a CD just out, entitled Absolute Mix, the group plays Hindemith and Debussy. But they also play composers in their 40s—among them Michael Daugherty (b. 1959), who has written Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover, for string quartet and tape. This piece is a terrifyingly funny tour de force, finding music in the longtime FBI director/closet tyrant’s actual voice, and extending the range of what string quartets can do.

Such music deserves to be heard, and it would no doubt be applauded if more people actually did hear it. But until that happens, classical music is in trouble. Old ears are dying faster than new ears are being recruited. As a result, symphony directors are constantly searching for ways to appeal to a younger and broader audience—most frequently by staging pops concerts and issuing pops CDs. Many of the most prestigious symphony orchestras in the world—including the London Philharmonic—are doing this. They hope to make money, of course, but they also hope people who bring their ears to a concert featuring Tina Turner or Amy Grant will bring them also to hear Richard Wagner and Charles Ives.

The Nashville Symphony has for years been doing pops concerts, featuring stars from John Berry to Ray Charles. But this weekend, they follow their Carnegie Hall debut with another debut—their first-ever “cabaret concert,” in which listeners, seated at tables near the stage, may eat and drink during the performance. This new offering also takes place in a new venue for the orchestra, the Nashville Convention Center. But though the seating arrangements and the venue are different, the programming is mainstream oldies and the objective unabashed: to recruit new listeners who might be turned into regular Symphony supporters.

At this point in its history, there are strong constraints on what the Symphony can afford to do. Given its circumstances, the ensemble has chosen its cabaret program astutely, and the evening ought to be fun for audience members both young and old. It showcases Don McLean, who hit it big some 30 years ago with “American Pie,” a song lamenting (ironically) “the day the music died.” This year, the song was a big hit all over again, thanks to Madonna, and may therefore even attract some of today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings.

According to online testimony, McLean remains a big draw these days, especially in the UK. He is expected to do other hits as well, such as “Vincent,” “Crying,” and “Castles in the Air.” He will be accompanied by the Nashville Symphony, playing arrangements by his own guest conductor Tony Migliore—solid, effective, professional stuff that goes very well with Maker’s Mark on the rocks.

The Symphony, led by pops conductor Ronn Huff and associate conductor Emelyne Bingham, will open the evening with a selection of holiday favorites in arrangements intended to refresh those favorites while showing off some of the orchestra’s players. In a witty wink at World War II-era crooner Bing Crosby (a.k.a. “The Old Groaner”), principal tuba player Gilbert Long will be featured as soloist in “White Christmas.” And the Symphony’s tight and brilliant trumpet section—Patrick Kunkee, Jeff Bailey, and Gary Armstrong—will flex their embouchures in “Bugler’s Holiday.” Assisted by the Russell Mauldin Singers, the Symphony will roast Mel Tormé’s chestnuts, and it would not be surprising if the house were encouraged to sing along. Besides this playing and singing, there will be dancing too: Nashville Ballet’s Allison Zamorski and Jon Upleger will interpret “Simple Gifts” from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

The Symphony’s first holiday cabaret ought to be a lot of fun. Everything on the program—Don McLean, Mel Tormé, even the cute wink at the Old Groaner—is good stuff. Listeners will, and should, enjoy it. But it’s not good that the Symphony evidently feels obliged to do pops programs, and yet does not dare include composers like Daugherty, or James MacMillan, or Conlon Nancarrow on any program anytime. Kristjan Järvi says he founded Absolute Ensemble to tear down walls. But in Music City, certainly, they are still solidly in place. Clearly, pops programming makes fiscal sense—Don McLean should be a strong draw, and Amy Grant will pack the house for her Christmas concerts. But until those same listeners come out to hear Michael Daugherty and his peers, the orchestra’s artistic future is not secure.

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