“To create an orchestra that has such a proprietary sound, we are really one-of-a-kind,” says Nashville Chamber Orchestra music director Paul Gambill. It might sound arrogant, except for two things: one, there’s no pomposity in his demeanor, and two, he’s right. Now starting the second season of David Balakrishan’s three-year stint as composer-in-residence, the orchestra is integrating revolutionary performance techniques that Balakrishnan developed with Turtle Island String Quartet, not to mention expanding the stylistic scope of its repertoire. And with the opening of the acoustically magnificent Schermerhorn Symphony Center this week, NCO will have a range of dynamics and nuance at its command that was heretofore only a dream. The orchestra hosts the Music Without Boundaries Gala on Sept. 11 as part of the Schermerhorn opening festivities.
Certainly Balakrishnan’s residency and the opening of Schermerhorn have conspired to create a seismic shift for NCO. But the orchestra has been breaking ground for some time now. Founded in 1990 by Gambill—who came here to play French horn with the Nashville Symphony, but whose real dream was to conduct—NCO reached its first major milestone with the 1996 commissioning and premiere of “Blackberry Winter,” a concerto for mountain dulcimer, Tennessee music box and orchestra composed by Conni Ellisor with David Schnaufer. (Schnaufer, widely recognized as the world’s leading player and proponent of the mountain dulcimer, died in August after a brief battle with lung cancer. He was scheduled to perform at the gala, and the program will be dedicated to him.) “Blackberry Winter” has since become a signature piece for NCO and gained national acclaim.
“ ‘Blackberry Winter’ ties in with the influence that bluegrass has had on us, and the music that is created here in Nashville,” Gambill says. “We love taking that style and updating it, and then mixing it with the very ancient western classical performance practice tradition. When you put those two worlds together, you get something that’s never been done before.”
Since then, NCO has commissioned 35 works, and now commissions a new work for every program. “Outside of maybe the American Composers Orchestra,” Gambill says, “I don’t think there’s another orchestra in the country that premieres a work they’ve commissioned on every program. It’s an extraordinary commitment. It takes an unusual amount of rehearsal to be successful at it, which is also expensive.”
To make such an undertaking feasible, and to overcome classical audiences’ resistance to new works, Gambill says NCO programs popular masterworks alongside them. In October, for instance, the orchestra plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony alongside a commissioned piece for two mandolins and guitar.
“There’s a knee-jerk reaction against ‘new classical music,’ ” Gambill says. “For so long, audiences came to know that music as being serial music, or avant-garde, with no emotional connection. We’re doing stuff that’s experimental for an orchestra, but it’s not experimental for the audience, because these are sounds that we’re familiar with from other musical genres. What is experimental is hearing an orchestra do them.”
In 2005—thanks to a $217,000 grant from Meet the Composer, the largest support group for composers in the country—Balakrishnan signed on as composer-in-residence. The grant was the largest awarded by the organization that year, a testament to the level of respect NCO now commands.
Balakrishnan’s residency is a coup for NCO. Turtle Island String Quartet wasn’t the first string quartet to combine classical music with jazz, rock and other idioms, but as Jeremy Grimshaw writes on allmusic.com, “While we get a sense of this demolition of boundaries from groups like the Kronos or Brodsky Quartets, Turtle Island seems to pretend that these boundaries never existed.” For a chamber orchestra with the slogan “Music Without Boundaries,” it’s a perfect match.
Beyond providing new compositions, Balakrishnan is helping to redefine the way NCO plays on a more cellular level. “Turtle Island has actually created ways of playing string instruments that nobody else can do,” Gambill explains. “They’re so specialized that you have to live in them to make them work. So having David work with us to really teach us these proprietary performance techniques is a one-of-a-kind opportunity.”
“When David’s residency is over,” Gambill continues, “we’ll be well on the path to having a defined repertoire that nobody else can play. We’ll be a go-to orchestra for composers who want to stretch in that direction. Most classical orchestras are so steeped in one way of playing, the western classical tradition, that to be successful playing outside of that box doesn’t work.”
And that’s one area where NCO, by virtue of location, has a huge leg up. “This is a group of commercial string players that do all kinds of styles every day in the studio,” Gambill says, “and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful with the crossover pieces.”
NCO’s Music Without Boundaries Gala on Monday is a broad program that seeks to tie together Nashville’s past and future. “In the first half,” Gambill says, “we focus on the orchestra and what we are renowned for, creating music that integrates different styles, so we come right out of the gate with a new work by our composer-in-residence. That’s for gypsy jazz guitar, jazz string quartet and string orchestra. That’s with John Jorgenson and the Turtle Island String Quartet. The other work on the first half is Aaron Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring,’ one of the most famous works of American music. Copland was really the first composer to create music that sounded like ‘American’ music, so it felt very appropriate to play that in the new hall.
“The opening of the hall is really a demarcation point in the history of Nashville, so we wanted to do a retrospective of how we got here, and blend that into our vision of where classical music is going. So Marty Stuart is hosting the second half. We’re bringing in some Opry stars. Connie Smith is going to sing a wonderful traditional country song and Marty’s going to be here with his group the Superlatives. We have Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Darrell Scott. The Fisk Jubilee Singers are doing a selection. And we’ll have one of the founders of bluegrass, Earl Scruggs, which is just amazing.” The second half will also include “Blackberry Winter.”
The rest of the NCO season at Schermerhorn is equally diverse. On Oct. 14, NCO presents “Musical Portraits: Community, Cameras and Classics,” during which photographs by local Nashvillians—photochoreographed by renowned artist James Westwater—will be projected onto screens above the orchestra. The show includes a commissioned piece, Don Hart’s Concertino for Two Mandolins and Guitar, as well as NCO’s first performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The “Thanksgiving Celebration,” on Nov. 24 and 25, includes Wynonna, Donna Summer and the NCO Gospel Choir. “Gershwin & Klezmer,” on March 24, will feature “Rhapsody in Blue” with Amy Dorfman on piano, along with the premiere of a commissioned concerto for a klezmer band composed by Blair School of Music’s Michael Alec Rose and performed by Brave Old World with the NCO. (The performance is part of NCO’s two-week Jewish-American Music Festival, which includes shows at other venues.) And at the “Gypsy Nights” program on June 22 and 23, the orchestra premieres Balakrishnan’s Violin Concerto, inspired by Gypsy and Indian music. That program also includes a Gypsy-inspired work for the cimbalom, the national instrument of Hungary. (NCO also offers programs at Grace Chapel in Leipers Fork, and will present “An NCO Valentine” at the Grand Ole Opry House on Feb. 14. For a more comprehensive schedule, visit nco.org.)
“There’s no doubt it’s a new era in our city’s history,” Gambill says about the opening of Schermerhorn. “We’ve already seen the impact it’s had on development. But artistically what it does, for not just our orchestra and the symphony, but for the audience, is it gives them a chance to really, literally feel the power of orchestral music. I’ve heard concerts in there and in an uncanny way you can feel the pizzicatos from the strings, and when the choir sings, it feels like the sound is pushing you back in your seat.”
More than that, he says, it gives NCO a home—“a place for people to identify with us, and to get excited about going to. Before, we were in a different venue almost every concert. Through the consistency and excitement of that hall, our audience will grow in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise. This is the biggest season we’ve ever programmed.”