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Is orchestra's success an illusion?

Is orchestra's success an illusion?

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra has already been busy this season, and more is on the way. Next is the ”Sweet Dreams“ concert, featuring flutist Eugenia Zukerman, this coming Friday and Saturday at TPAC. Not far behind are Mercedes Ellington, the Canadian Brass, and Awadagin Pratt, among others. Why then is grumbling heard in the land?

The orchestra, all signs tell us, is thriving. But some think this success may be a delusion—or a sellout. Certainly Pearl Bailey was right about money: ”Maybe you can’t take it with you, honey, but you sure can’t go nowhere without it.“ And certainly professional musicians quickly become amateurs if folks won’t pay to hear what they play. But the question remains: Can you rightly call yourself a symphony when you perform with Amy Grant or Rosemary Clooney? A symphony, some growl, exists to play ”classical“ music, not pop stuff.

Eugenia Zukerman personifies a point of view that many ”classical“ organizations share these days. Judging her on the basis of her recorded output, critics might argue that she has indeed sold out. But the high quality of Zukerman’s recordings suggests that the line between ”classical“ music and other kinds needs redrawing. What really matters is how well the music is done, not how ”serious“ it claims to be. It’s an argument that ought to be thought through.

Last week’s visit by the King’s Singers is a case in point. This vocal ensemble showed that a wide spectrum of music, from the sublime to the silly, can be performed with accuracy and energy and taste—and delight a large, sophisticated house. ”Classical music,“ as a useful concept, ought to mean a certain quality of sound in quality arrangements realized at a high level of technical execution. It can come, the Singers showed, in a contemporary Italian version of some Victorian limericks by Edward Lear. The composition, called Nonsense, was the classily hilarious ”low“ point of the evening, worthy of a Mozart opera.

Maybe what we need is a revised set of expectations. Eugenia Zukerman seems to think so. She talks the talk, and she walks the walk. A regular commentator on CBS Sunday Morning, she does not play music on TV; she talks about music played by other people. A lovely, articulate, informed, and intelligent presence, she has published good articles on music and has published two novels as well. She knows whereof she speaks. And she plays whereof as well.

Born in 1944, she studied at Juilliard, and in 1971 won a Young Concert Artists audition, which earned her a debut recital in New York’s Town Hall. She has been a major-leaguer ever since, performing with orchestras, in solo and duet recitals, and with chamber ensembles. She was married to Pinchas Zukerman from 1968 to 1985, and has appeared in performances with him—as well as with Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. In 1998 she will tour with the Shanghai String Quartet, and this next summer she will be the music director for the Bravo! Colorado Vail Valley Music Festival.

She has a long list of recordings—some ”serious,“ some ”light,“ all musical. She has recorded Bach with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and she has recorded Mozart with the English Chamber Orchestra. And she has done, also with the English Chamber Orchestra, a CD called Heigh-Ho! Mozart: Favorite Disney Tunes in the Style of Great Classical Composers. For Eugenia Zukerman, for the King’s Singers, and for a growing number of other classical performers, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Mozart, after all, exists for us only as a certain kind of sound.

The jury is still out on this question. But Eugenia Zukerman will deliver just this kind of classical music with the Nashville Symphony. The program will not be Wagner or Schoenberg. She is on a bill that features Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (”Winter Dreams“) in the same key. Her part of the evening, the least-known entry on the card, will not clash with either Amadeus or Pyotr Ilyich.

Zukerman will play the only flute concerto by Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), the most important Danish composer, some say, since the Romantic period. Nielsen, a prolific composer of symphonies, operas, and songs as well as chamber music, deserves to be better known than he is. Rooted in the classicism of Mozart, and raised on the nationalist Romanticism of Tchaikovsky, Nielsen blended these two traditions with rural tunes and rhythms from his native Denmark to produce a disciplined, expressive, tuneful, and distinctively Scandinavian sound. His music is driven by melody and rhythm, and his harmonies are functions of melody, not just accompaniments. This concerto’s sonorities, often modal, have the dissonant richness heard also in Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius.

The concerto is not called program music, but it rewards being heard as a kind of journey, maybe a dream journey, with the flute a kind of pilgrim—a sensitive rustic, or a mythical bird. Mostly, the orchestra suggests the landscape or dreamscape through which the pilgrim travels. Sometimes the flute converses with one or a few of the other winds, as if asking directions or fixing impressions. The orchestra, often energetic, often muscular, is never ominous. The voice of the flute, often excited and attentive, is never distressed. And each of the two movements is a sequence of alternating exertions and recoveries that resolves into alert repose.

Magnum stuff? Maybe not. But sweet dreams are just as real as sleeplessness. And seemingly naive music can surprise us in ways that stay with us for decades.

Years ago, I heard Walter Gieseking play one of his last piano recitals. The old man had already come out to the piano and was seated on the bench when some usher admitted a fur-clad woman in spike heels into the auditorium. The woman clattered down the center aisle to find her seat in the middle of the fourth or fifth row. Gieseking, a short, knobby clump crammed into a tuxedo, sat on the piano bench and stared as the lady made a nest for herself, draping fur over seatback, arranging skirt demurely over knees. After she was comfortable, he waited until the buzzing of the audience faded into attentiveness sharpened by embarrassment. And then he played. He played a little Mozart sonatina that many piano students play in about their second year.

But he didn’t play it like a piano student. It was a classical performance. Eugenia Zukerman’s will be too.

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