He’s Got the Beat 

Newly appointed music director provides the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with some much needed polish

When Giancarlo Guerrero walked onstage at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center last Thursday, it seemed at first like a typical concert. But it soon became apparent that this wasn’t an ordinary concert.
When Giancarlo Guerrero walked onstage at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center last Thursday, it seemed at first like a typical concert. Members of the audience greeted the conductor with their usual polite applause. And Guerrero, for his part, responded with a curt and obligatory nod.

But it soon became apparent that this wasn’t an ordinary concert. The hall, which is usually only about half full for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday night concerts, was filled nearly to capacity. And shortly after Guerrero mounted the podium, audience members sprang to their feet, turning their initial polite applause into a furious ovation.

Guerrero, who earlier this month was appointed the NSO’s next music director (he assumes his post at the start of the 2009-10 season), smiled for a moment like a kid at a surprise birthday party. But he didn’t bask long in the glow. He had important work to do. So after a traditional season-opening rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Guerrero launched immediately into a performance of contemporary American composer Claude Baker’s Aus Schwanengesang (From Swan Song).

Lasting about 20 minutes, Aus Schwanengesang is a colorful, ingenious and quite frankly weird piece. Baker takes five of 19th century Austrian composer Franz Schubert’s art songs as his starting points. But he doesn’t just transcribe them. Instead, he takes Schubert’s mellifluous tunes and recomposes them, mutating them in some instances beyond all recognition.

In the first number, “Das Fischermädchen” (The Fisher Maiden), Baker distorts the tempo, creating the illusion of time slowing down (or of a record player slowing its rotations). He fills the second song, “Am Meer/Die Stadt” (By the Sea/The City), with screeching string harmonics and pile-driving percussion (from no fewer than four percussionists). And he turns the last song, “Der Atlas” (Atlas), into an unexpected pastiche that includes not only Schubert but also snippets from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor.

Guerrero approached this piece with a remarkable seriousness of purpose. Indeed, he conducted with arm movements that seemed almost mathematical in their precision, and the orchestra responded with performances that were both expertly calibrated (no mean feat in this rhythmically complex piece) and deeply felt. The composer, who was in the audience, was rewarded with warm applause.

The NSO followed this ear-bending music with a familiar blockbuster, Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35. Fortunately, there was nothing routine about the performance.

The soloist, Midori, was in especially fine form. Throughout the evening, she was intensely in the moment, playing flashy passages with breathtaking virtuosity and lyrical ones with an almost incandescent sort of rapture. (It’s worth noting that this celebrated violinist was also seemingly indefatigable, remaining in the hall long after the show to meet with fans and sign autographs.)

Guerrero, meanwhile, proved to be more than just an able accompanist. He was an equal partner in the music making, engaging in an expressive give-and-take with the soloist while eliciting succulent, full-bodied textures from the orchestra.

Not surprisingly, Guerrero was most impressive in the concert finale, a performance of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral masterpiece Daphnis et Chloé, Suites Nos. 1 and 2. This amazing piece—originally composed as ballet music to accompany a pastoral Greek drama—exploits the full resources of the orchestra.

In fact, it’s hard to think of a more evocative and rustic sonic painting. Undulating figures in the winds, harps, celesta and strings call to mind a murmuring brook. The piccolos, meanwhile, sound almost exactly like chirping birds.

When Guerrero last appeared with the NSO in June, he was a consummate showman, leading the orchestra with gestures that were big, clear, sweeping and ebullient. This time he was all business. He resisted the urge to conduct with flamboyant choreography, à la Leonard Bernstein. Instead, he was a meticulous craftsman.

The result was a performance that was both polished and opulent. Technical polish is one of the things the Nashville Symphony Orchestra needs most these days—it’s already got the fantastic concert hall. Guerrero’s performance bodes well for the NSO’s future.

Carolyn Huebl and Mark Wait

As interpreters of modern music, violinist Carolyn Huebl and pianist Mark Wait are utterly fearless. The duo, both professors at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, performed two of the most daunting works in the repertoire at their recital Monday night at Turner Recital Hall. Their renditions were breathtaking.

They opened with French composer Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Completed in 1917 (just a year before the composer’s death), the sonata is among Debussy’s most probing and sophisticated works. Debussy placed the greatest interpretive and technical demands on the violinist, and Huebl proved to be equal to the challenges.

She played the broad and flowing melodies of the opening Allegro vivo with unfailing sensitivity, and she brought an appropriate playfulness to the second movement Fantasque et léger. But she was most impressive in the final Très animé, tossing off that movement’s incessant stream of sixteenth notes as if they were child’s play.

The challenges for the pianist in the Debussy are more interpretive than technical, and in this regard Wait didn’t disappoint. His playing was remarkable for its flowing legato and delicate shading.

Wait serves as dean at the Blair School of Music and is widely respected for his interpretations of modern music. Certainly, the many students who packed the hall Monday night could profit from studying his music making. He got the Debussy exactly right, emphasizing the music’s elegant lyricism while avoiding the sort of soupy pedaling that often ruins this composer’s piano music.

Huebl and Wait approached Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s First Sonata for Violin and Piano, the final piece on the program, with the seeming recklessness of bungee jumpers. This is a demonically difficult piece, one that’s full of jagged, rapid-fire figurations for the violin. The pianist, meanwhile, must navigate the entire stretch of the keyboard at breakneck speeds. Huebl and Wait decided to risk all, pushing their tempos and emotions to the extreme. It was a gamble that paid off, and it won for the duo a resounding ovation.

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