Need a conductor who can direct the orchestra in an unfamiliar, complex and fiendishly difficult new piano concerto? Guerrero, a new-music specialist, is your man, and his bracing reading of Michael Daugherty’s Deus ex Machina for Piano and Orchestra made this strange novelty seem like an old friend. Need a conductor who can also lead authoritative renditions of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 6 and Respighi’s The Pines of Rome on the same program? Guerrero conducted both with grace, taste and—in the case of the Respighi—a welcome degree of passion.
No doubt, this terrific conductor has the goods—the ear, intellect and musicianship. But he also possesses those hard-to-define but essential ingredients of all great music directors: charm and charisma. He first worked his magic with the NSO in April 2005, and he’s been bonded with these musicians ever since.
“I led the first NSO concert right after Kenneth Schermerhorn died, and when I arrived there was a lot of sadness with the musicians,” says Guerrero. “So I decided to make the concert a celebration of Kenneth’s life in music, and by the time we were done the orchestra and I had developed a lot of chemistry.”
“Giancarlo definitely turned out to be the right conductor at the right time and place,” says Alan Valentine, the NSO’s president. “It helped start the healing process.”
Guerrero’s bond with the players showed in every aspect of his performance last Thursday at the Schermerhorn. He led the musicians with big, sweeping, clear and ebullient gestures, and they responded in kind, delivering performances that were as warmly passionate as they were expertly calibrated.
Precision was needed in Daugherty’s complex concerto, which featured pianist Terrence Wilson behind the Steinway. Deus ex Machina is the composer’s homage to locomotives—Daugherty often finds musical inspiration in the icons of American history and pop culture. But there was nothing crass or literal in the music. Daugherty didn’t try to imitate train whistles, and he made no attempt to rewrite “Casey Junior.” This was music that stretched the ear and challenged the imagination.
The first movement, called “Fast Forward (Di andata veloce),” is really an abstract sonic metaphor for the power of machines. It opens with the pianist holding down his sustaining pedal while strumming the strings inside the piano. From there, the score launches into an orgy of sound—violent string pizzicatos, pounding piano octaves and dizzying trombone slides.
“Train of Tears,” the second movement, was inspired by the funeral train that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body back to Springfield, Ill., following his assassination. Aside from a trumpet playing “Taps,” though, this was also an abstract work full of colorful orchestrations and idiomatic piano writing. “Night Steam,” the finale, was a tribute to the last steam engines to rumble through the Shenandoah.
The third movement was without question the weakest—indeed, I walked out of the Schermerhorn feeling as though I’d just heard two-thirds of a masterpiece. The piece offered plenty of bouncy boogie-woogie motives, but it also featured long stretches in which the composer seemed to be tossing up musical air balls—basically, Daugherty seemed to have almost too many good ideas but no clear sense of how to tie them together. Fortunately, there were no defects in the performance. Wilson played with lots of razzle-dazzle and a genuine love of the music—throughout the performance you could see him exchange smiles with the conductor. Guerrero and his forces, meanwhile, matched the pianist’s heat with a colorful intensity of their own.
The program featured a couple of surprises. It opened not with the usual overture but rather with a full-blown four-movement symphony—Sibelius’ seldom heard Symphony No. 6. This a serene and beatific piece that in performance is often overmarinated with a soupy kind of romanticism. Guerrero and the NSO, however, got it right, playing it with classical elegance and Mozartean clarity.
Strauss’ Serenade in E-flat for Winds, Op. 7, was another surprise. This light, mellifluous work—scored for just 13 players—is the kind of chamber music you normally hear in a park, not a concert hall. But after hearing Daugherty’s thorny concerto, the Strauss served as an effective musical palate cleanser, and Guerrero, conducting without a baton, gave it a sweet and loving reading. Respighi’s colorful Pines of Rome, meanwhile, was played at a brisk pace and with just the right amount of imperious grandeur—including six brass players stationed in two upper balconies.
Guerrero returns to the NSO next year to conduct Verdi’s Requiem. Let’s hope that’s the beginning of an even more permanent relationship.
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