Nashville Chamber Orchestra w/Nashville Bluegrass Band
April 19 at War Memorial Auditorium
The Nashville Chamber Orchestra played its final concert of the season last Saturday evening at War Memorial Auditorium. As always, the concert featured a musician or a group known for making the kind of music that earned Music City its nicknamein this case, the Nashville Bluegrass Band. It also featured a couple selections from established classical repertory, and it featured the first public performance of a new composition that marries these classical and non-classical traditions.
As with other NCO concerts, the program included a segment in which the guests played their own music in their own waydoing what they are known for. This may well be what most listeners buy tickets to hear. But it’s the mixed-marriage music that’s garnering for NCO some national attention. Several of the ensemble’s performances have gotten airtime all over the country on Performance Today, National Public Radio’s premier classical music showcase. The works catching the most ears have come from Conni Ellisor, the orchestra’s composer-in-residence.
Like most of NCO’s players, Ellisor makes her living as a studio musician, performing and arranging in a variety of styles. She also has written in a variety of styles for NCO, including Latin and jazz. But she has attracted the most attention for marrying the Appalachian folk tradition to the classical one. Her Blackberry Winter, recorded by NCO in 1997, weaves the distinctive sound of the mountain dulcimer into a rich and lovely classical orchestral texture. She has just done it again in an exciting new piece written especially for the Nashville Bluegrass Band; this one she calls Whiskey Before Breakfast.
Ellisor is not the only composer working this lodeMark O’Connor’s doing it too. But she does it with her own kind of mastery. In this new piece, she takes some special risks: She risks deliberately inviting comparison with Bach in a piece that features the bright twangy timbres of authentic bluegrass. Her audacity, it seems to me, pays a big dividend. She weaves together a sophisticated contrapuntal orchestral texture that incorporates brilliant bravura performances by players who don’t read a note of music. Indeed, what this music is about, I’d argue, is how lovemaking between aristocrats and peasants improves both gene pools.
Ellisor calls her composition a partita, a word that deliberately recalls Bach. “Partita” literally means “parted”that is, divided into several sections. A partita is also called a suitea succession of movements, each commonly based on a dance form. The movements contrast in structure, tempo, and meter. Bach found his dance forms all over Europe, and though he handled them with great sophistication, they remained rooted in the festivals and entertainments of the unpolished many.
Alive to the interrelations of the folk tradition and the courtly tradition, Ellisor is especially interested in how the “upper” tradition feeds on the “lower.” “I am struck,” she says in her program notes, “by the similarity rather than the difference in the forms. While the folk tunes were called reels, jigs, and hornpipes, the more ‘legitimate’ composers called them sicilianos, courantes, and allemandes. But the result was still lively toe-tapping melodies.”
She connects the vitality of both traditions in Whiskey Before Breakfast. The work’s most marvelous feature, maybe, is that each tradition preserves its own character, yet in a counterpoint that renews and corroborates both. It’s a tribute to the composer’s versatile professionalism that she is able to succeed so well. Part of it is making a virtue of necessity. The NBB are brilliant virtuoso performers, but they do everything by ear, and rehearsal time is limited. Accordingly, they must be able to do confidently what they do, and the orchestra has to build on and around that.
This partita has eight segments: an orchestral introduction followed by seven sections, the final movement being a blazingly bravura bluegrass breakdown. All but two of the movements are based on traditional bluegrass tunes, one giving its name to the whole. Ellisor’s two original tunes, which NBB learned and played from memory, wonderfully marry baroque modalities and their Appalachian offspring.
The composer’s technical mastery and musical inventiveness are evident throughout, but nowhere more delightfully than in the title section. Here she morphs the tune through a sequence of historical styles, beginning in pre-baroque England, passing through the baroque and the rococo periods and the lucidity of classicism, before handing the tune over to NBB, who proceed to smelt gold from New World hills.
This movement, immediately following the introduction, is itself followed by five sections with old-world namessiciliano, allemande (of which there are two), courante, loure. These middle segments alternate slow/fast tempos, duple/triple meters, and interplay between orchestra and bluegrass band. The penultimate movement, based on a Scottish folksong, is a slow and majestic gigue (out of Ireland by way of France) that segues into the finalea hell-for-leather breakdown on the tune “Leather Breeches.”
Recently, a classical music critic for The New York Times lugubriously proclaimed that orchestral music had become culturally irrelevant. This partita might curl his lips into a hopeful smile.
Karen Lynne Deal recently left her position as associate conductor of the Nashville Symphony to become music director and conductor of the Illinois Symphony. After having spent some eight years in Nashville, she is now finishing her debut season on her new podium. She was chosen, by musicians and listeners, from a field of more than 160 candidates, and her welcome has been warm.
For the fifth of this Illinois season’s Masterworks Concerts, she is taking some Nashville musicians with hertemporarily. Encouraged by the well-received Carmina burana that the Nashville Symphony Chorus delivered last year, Deal wanted to do that work with her new orchestra and chorus. But she didn’t have enough voices. So she invited some 45 singers from our Symphony Chorus to join her Illinois forces for two performancesin Bloomington on May 4 and in Springfield on May 5.
The Nashville Symphony Chorus just concluded its own season with the Duruflé Requiem last weekend. The singers and director George Mabry agreed to donate some additional rehearsal time to make sure their Carmina is still good before they bus it northward. The Illinois Symphony Association has raised the money to cover expenses. But this trip will be made for love, not moneylove for making music, and for an amiable friend and former colleague. If the Illinois Carmina burana performances measure up to the standard set here last year, Karen Lynne Deal will round off her first Illinois season on a very good note indeed. We wish her every success.
Looks like he was a great Artist.......who left his Legacy behind for others to follow.....
Indianapolis (CA-35), not Indiana.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.