Some time ago I developed the Brahms Yawn Scale. In the aftermath of a concert during which an extremely well-known American pianist played with lapidary precision both books of Brahms’ Paganini Variations, I decided that any performance displaying the bladder-aching torpor of this one needed a cautionary boredom quantification. Thus the BYS scale, in which concerts given a rating of 1 have the energy of solar plasma, while music rating a 9 has insufficient energy to sustain life in those bacteria that reproduce every two hundred years or so. Zeros and 10s are theoretically possible, but no known instruments can measure these extremes. Last week’s finale to the Nashville Symphony’s 1996-97 season did not test the limits of the scale, but there were yawning moments.
The audience last Friday night should have been steeled for a high-BYS performance when pianist Emmanuel Ax entered onto the stage for Brahms’ D Minor Piano Concerto. While Kenneth Schermerhorn took the maestro’s podium with his customary vigor, Ax plodded onstage like a man being led to execution by keyboard. I am happy to report that soloist, ensemble, and audience survived, but sometimes it seemed like they might not make it.
Maestro Schermerhorn’s approach to the work was on this occasion exceptionally ruminative, with tempi on the slow side of customary. Although this approach sometimes allows listeners insight into frequently overlooked details or structure, here it mostly vitiated the great romantic energy and much of the color of this concerto. Mind you, the music was not played in a colorless mannerit was just that the color came in small touches. In the dark and brooding moments of this concerto, Brahms gave meaty parts to the low strings, especially the cellos, and the NSO’s cellos had a restless churning here that was emotionally and tonally on target. The NSO’s woodwinds in general and bassoons in particular did well by their parts. They took the slow tempi in stride, managing to convert moroseness into a caress.
One problem with the pace of this performance was that the orchestra seemed to champ at the bit more than usual. There were more ragged attacks in this one piece than I heard in the entire season that preceded it. This was especially true of the NSO’s horn section. At almost every point, their ensemble was both late and piecemeal, their pitch was frequently approximate, and their tone quality was gruel-thin. This caused the greatest problems in the second movement, with its lovely nocturnal passages for horn and piano; here, the leaden tempi and tin horns made one wish for dawn.
If Schermerhorn’s general approach to the Brahms work was relaxed, Ax’s solo work, particularly at the beginning, was often so deliberate as to be mistaken for pounding. Especially during the first movement, Ax’s insistence on a heavily accented right hand caused every other musical idea in the solo to be sacrificed to the melodic line. There was some elegant use of rubato, and Ax managed an occasional legato passage of great beauty, but the overall impression was one of superficiality rather than of art.
Much of the second movement was similarly perfunctory. The notes were there, but the feeling wasn’t. Somewhere in the last half of this movement, however, something clicked. After some solo passages of exquisite delicacy, Ax began to be carried away by the poetry and the power of the music. As he launched into the finale, not even the ever-present horn problems could detract from his suave way with extended trills and tricky passage-work. The rubati, which were elegant in the first movement, took on a panache in the finale that dropped the BYS rating for this performance several notches.
If the slow tempi in the Brahms frequently resulted in stifled yawns, they worked much better for the Symphony No. 3 in C Minor by Camille Saint-Saêns. After ragged entrances both by the bassoons and the violins, the orchestra settled in to fashion a performance that was marked by those very French virtues of clarity and balance. The phrasing and dynamics throughout surged like ocean waves, and the strings played with a gloss that shone like fine lacquer work. Again, the NSO cello section turned in some of their most admirable work, providing heft without heaviness.
This symphony wouldn’t be French music without beautiful star turns for the woodwinds, and every member of the NSO’s wind section played at top level. What one doesn’t expect so much in French music is virtuoso playing by the brasses. The NSO brasses were more than up to the task, with even the horn section nailing the echo passages during the finale. The blazing and overpowering contribution of the low brasses to the finale was visceral.
I wish I could say the same for the organ part, which gives the work its nickname, Organ Symphony. My demur here has nothing to do with Andrew Risinger’s work at the keyboard and everything to do with the electronic instrument he played at Friday’s concert. It did not lack volume, but it did lack power, and it had no finesse. The flute stops in particular sounded more like the tone generators that they were rather than any approximation of real pipes. Reeds sounded like generic slush, and the fundamental organ sounds were just a wash. Never has the king of instruments sounded like such a pretender to the throne. Until some philanthropic individual or organization steps in to provide TPAC with the instrument that it ought to have, the NSO should only play this piece in a suitably equipped venue.
This was the last concert in the NSO’s regular season, but I’ll close my remarks on the ’96-’97 symphony season as I began them: with a note about an NSO Pops Concert, this one an Opry House gala featuring Peter, Paul, and Mary. The first half of the concert showcased the orchestra in splendid performances of lighter works and symphonic arrangements, but Maestra Karen Lynne Deal is to be especially commended for her direction of a 20th-century American favorite, Ron Nelson’s Savannah River Holiday. The playing was full of incidence and color; here’s hoping that the NSO will see fit to include it in a future recording.
Of course, the big attraction here was Peter, Paul, and Mary, a group that, truth to tell, would have been complete without the orchestra as backup. I happily report that, although they have changed much since I last heard themin particular, Mary Travers’ voice has darkened to that of a high tenormost of those changes have not taken away from the enjoyment of a good song well done. I might have wished for them to stop singing so many descants, but the audience provided the melody so often that it was like sitting around a campfire. It was a campfire that blazed with memory, and the only yawns were occasioned by fresh airnever by boredom.
Come to think of it, this whole NSO season has been marked by those moments of combustive illumination. Pardon me while I indulge in a good, tired yawn.
Megan Fox and Dave Barry
Walton Goggins for Fox. Claire Danes, if you squint, for Barry.
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