Nashville Symphony’s Horizons Series
Jan. 30 at War Memorial Auditorium
As the millennium approaches, the Nashville Symphony is gearing up for an ambitious undertaking: On April Fool’s Day in the year 2000, the ensemble will perform in Carnegie Hall. Looking toward that date, and recognizing that the string section is the core of any symphony orchestra, the Symphony has hired 16 additional string players. In an attempt to showcaseand to fine-tunethe newly augmented string section, this season conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn is presenting the Horizons Series in War Memorial Auditorium.
According to the Nashville Symphony’s original announcement, these three concerts were to feature chamber music, centering on the strings. Such a setting allows fewer players to sit closer together, thus allowing them to hear one another much better and to develop into a scrupulously precise ensemble. Accomplished chamber orchestrasthe Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, for examplecommonly perform without any conductor at all. To succeed at this, musicians really have to listen to one another and to the ensemble as a wholeand they have to perform with extraordinary discipline.
The new series thus seemed a brilliant idea, aimed at addressing the cardinal weakness in our Symphony: a pervasive imprecision in rhythm and intonation. This inexactness is subtle enough that plenty of listeners wouldn’t even notice it. To hear it, you’d have to compare a performance by the Nashville Symphony to one by an accomplished ensemble such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who played at the Ryman last Saturday at the very same time as the Nashville Symphony unveiled its first Horizons concert in War Memorial Auditorium. Heard in this context, the difference in sonority is unmistakable. Put simply, people in Carnegie Hall are likely to hear it.
This musical difference arises when notes do not begin quite together, or when pitches do not precisely agree. What should be a focused unison tone is instead a fuzzy cluster, and what should be a sharply defined chord is an even fuzzier cluster. This sonic tension marks the essential difference between a pretty good ensemble and a first-rate one. There are other differences toothe interpretive shape of the music, for instancebut they are irrelevant until the fuzz is removed.
What the Symphony offered last Saturday, however, was not chamber music; nearly the entire orchestra was onstage. And it was indeed a program marked by pervasive imprecision: in rhythm, in intonation, in sectional balance, and in the balance between ensemble and soloists. In Jackson Hall, or in the Polk Theater, the balance problems could be blamed on flawed acoustical space. That alibi is not available in War Memorial Auditorium.
If, a little more than a year from now, the Symphony plays in Carnegie Hall the way it played last Saturday evening, it will not bring shame on Music City. But it will bring no luster either.
The first Horizons program, though not chamber music, and though safely canonical, was very good stuff. It should have permitted the Symphony to strut its own stuff. The concert began with a Bach suite for flute and orchestra, featuring principal flutist Erik Gratton. The Bach was followed by Mozart’s Symphony No. 36, and then by a Johann Strauss Jr. suite based on Molière’s wittily satirical drama Le bourgeois gentilhomme. The program in itself was world-class.
What’s more, the Symphony has some very fine players. The Canadian-born Gratton is one of them, and the Bach suite that opened the program might have brilliantly launched the evening. In fact, the Bach was the least successful offering. The most evident flaw was the faulty balance among orchestral sections, and between orchestra and soloist. Gratton was audibly fine, when he could be heard above the orchestra, but in the end, his excellence was blurred by the orchestra’s imprecision.
Bach demands exact execution of independent musical lines imitating one another in a kind of running dance. Accurate rhythmic pace is critical if the right notes are going to pass each other at the right moments. In this performance, they did not, and the polyphonic texture was ragged from the start.
This was troublesome especially in the last movement, a fast and wittily teasing dialogue between Gratton’s flute and the orchestra. It should have been a brilliantly humorous finish for the suite. The flute put on a bravura showbut the orchestra did not.
Both the Mozart and the Strauss had gratifying moments. Mozart, especially, offered the strings a chance to be brilliant and vibrant and thrilling, and the players succeeded often enough to show that they had healthy music in them. Mostly, however, the sound needed therapy. The most gratifying moment here was the third of the four movements, a “Menuetto” marked by brilliant bawdy wit.
From the Strauss, two moments were quite pleasant. In the first, Mary Kathryn Vanosdale’s violin danced an agile pas de deux with Anthony LaMarchina’s cello while the rest of the orchestra pretended to be a giant guitar strumming romantically behind them. The second highlight came in the final movement of the Strauss, when the colorful, sophisticated humor of this Viennese composer was happily realized.
For any serious lover of classical music, a concert such as this offers a baffling conundrum: Clearly, the orchestra can play demanding music quite musically. But for at least the last four years, it has done so only in fits and starts. What’s going on here?
Saturday’s performance brought to mind a statement by Sir Neville Mariner, founding director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. From the outset, he said, his organization had two firm rules: They would hire only good musicians, and they would never perform in public under-rehearsed. Last Saturday, for all its noteworthy moments, the Nashville Symphony sounded as if it had broken both those rules.
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