Nashville Chamber Orchestra w/Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters
8 p.m. Feb. 12 & 14
Gibson’s Caffè Milano, 176 Third Ave. N.
Call 256-6546 for information
This week the Nashville Chamber Orchestra again presents its annual Valentine’s concert at Gibson’s Caffè Milano. These two upcoming appearances mark the group’s first performances of the new millennium, and they promise to nurture a growing reputation. Over the last several years, NCO has not only enjoyed successful home stands, the orchestra has also pierced the nation’s ear. National Public Radio has recorded three NCO programs for airing on Performance Today, which showcases the best in current American classical music, and Symphony Magazine has just run a feature on the ensemble.
The NCO is deserving of the attention. They consistently play wellthat’s the without-which-not of a good classical ensemble. Just as noteworthy, about half of every program typically consists of new music. Some of this is music NCO itself has commissioned; some of it comes from collaborations with a wide range of musicians, which has allowed the orchestra to incorporate a variety of musical materials into its programming. Not all the commissions or collaborations are equally good, but many are very good indeedand apparently it’s these pieces that have earned the group national recognition.
There is nothing stuffy or intimidating about an NCO performance. The music is not presented as something it is your duty to enjoy, as is often the case with classical ensembles. The NCO does perform some quite ”serious“ stuffbut not this weekend. This is a Valentine’s concert, mindful of the ties that bind lovers and friends. The program includes some certified classical work by C.P.E. Bach and Giacomo Puccini, but it also showcases two of Music City’s most accomplished singer-songwriters, Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters.
Both Berg’s and Peters’ songs have been performed by a bevy of celebrated singers, including Reba McEntire, Linda Ronstadt, George Strait, and Faith Hill. But both are good performers in their own right. They will be accompanied by NCO’s expressive strings, in arrangements by the orchestra’s multitalented composer-in-residence, Conni Ellisor. This lady has impressive gifts herselfas violinist and as composer/arranger. In addition to working on her own, she has written impressive work in collaboration with a wide range of musicians. Odds are she will do it again with these two.
The advance program divides this concert into two halves, each ending with a set by one of the featured guests. The first half opens with the first movement from the Sinfonia No. 3 of C.P.E. Bach, son of the better-known Sebastian Bach (”Old Bach“). Carl Phillip Emmanuel (d. 1788), trained by his father, had more success during his lifetime than dad did: He spent nearly 30 years at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia and became one of the most influential musicians of his generation. Papa Haydn learned from him; NCO’s shimmering strings ought to show why.
The Bach is to be followed by two Ellisor works, both originally NCO commissions. The title track of NCO’s 1997 CD, ”Conversations in Silence“ melds the composer’s classical training at the Juilliard School with 15 years of experience in the commercial music business. ”Nuages de la Nuit (Night Clouds)“ lets her display her skills as a jazz violinist; here, she’ll join two guitars and a bass to form a jazz quartet fronting the versatile NCO strings. Then, to close out the first half of the evening, Matraca Berg joins the orchestra for a set of her songs, arranged in collaboration with Ellisor.
The second half, neatly balancing the first, opens with two compositions by John Mock, both recent NCO commissions. ”The Stone“ features a solo violin with a Celtic band consisting of whistle, guitar, and a traditional Irish drum called the bodhran. ”Prelude to Bannockburn“ features a rousing bagpipe solo by Jay Dawson. These two scions of Celtic stock are followed by some quintessential Italian lyricismGiacomo Puccini’s passionate elegy ”Chrysanthemums,“ composed in memory of a close friend. Gretchen Peters, with the orchestra, closes out the evening.
The evening’s program will show what NCO has done to attract national attention; the quality of the music and the playing will likely show why. The evening may show as well what some listeners have long known: that ”classical“ music grows out of all sorts of sources, from hats and boots as well as white ties. What matters is the music, not its origin.
Good music, good cause
Last Thursday, Christ Presbyterian Church offered an outstanding performance of some splendid chamber music not often programmed. The four musicians included pianist Awadagin Pratt, known to local listeners through his appearances with the Nashville Symphony.
The concert’s sponsor was the Performing Arts Department of Salama Urban Industries, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting deserving young African Americans who seek a performing arts career. Funded by local churches and foundations, Salama has been serving Nashville’s Edgehill neighborhood for 15 years. Now it is branching out with its first performing arts series featuring internationally known African American artists. Last October, it brought the legendary bass-baritone William Warfield; Pratt’s appearance last week continued the series.
Pratt is the best-known of the fine musicians in this concert, but all four played with consummate technique and taste. With brief rehearsal time, they took on music that leaves performers without even a fig leaf. They didn’t need one, for their musicianship was always compelling.
The ambitious program, which ranged from Handel to Rachmaninoff, offered a series of duetsviolin/viola, cello/piano, violin/piano, and viola/celloplus a concluding piano quartet. Duets with piano are common enough, but duets with viola are uncommon indeed. It was gratifying, then, that though the most exquisite performance paired violin and piano in Gluck’s Melodie, the most wonderfully bravura performance paired violin and viola in Handel’s Passacaglia in G Minor. The final downstroke triggered thunderous applause.
In the finale, all four musicians played Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major. This quartet contains very little Mondschein and very much robust humor. Solidly made, it shows off all the instruments and builds to a dazzling vivace finale. The players were called back three times.
That response was delightful in itselfespecially because it came from a well-filled house in which most listeners applauded between movements. For elite audiences, that’s very uncool, like drinking from a finger bowl. But this house’s response showed they loved what they heardand that’s the reason why people play music in a live setting.
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