In Yogi Berra’s words, ”You can observe a lot by watching.“ The same goes for listening. And at the moment, observing classical music can be disheartening. With the rapid approach of Christmas, we’re up to our chins in a flood of seasonal Muzak, only some of it ”classical.“ If that weren’t bad enough, simply getting in the spirit demands a spending frenzy: The magi are all working for Stephen Wynn and Michael Eisner, and the newborn’s name is Furby. It’s enough to make a body gird up his loins and light out for the wilderness.
Well, not really, but it does prompt serious listeners to search hard for reasons not to tune out. Fortunately, the entire year isn’t like this. In the last 12 months, our city has heard a lot of enduring music. Some of it was domesticby the Nashville Symphony, by Nashville Opera, by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, by several vocal ensembles, and by the Blair String Quartet, among others. In addition, our city has enjoyed some fine importsthe Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the King’s Singers, the Canadian Brass, Jessye Norman, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Denyce Graves, to name a few. Much of this music has lived for centuries, and is likely to remain vital for years to come.
Looking back, last year was indeed a good year for classical music in Nashville. That said, classical music here is not really robustthough the same can be said for many cities all over the country. To understand why, the observer need only look at how our own classical music community functions.
In Nashville, classical music has a center: the big, heavily promoted events at TPAC, mainly Nashville Symphony concerts. Around that center are a number of smaller cells of activity; paradoxically, the cells are frequently more vital than the center, which is afflicted in two major ways.
First, and most troubling, is the skewing of the very word ”classical“ by TPAC’s promoters (and, for that matter, by classical music promoters everywhere). This is hard even to talk about without raising hackles and prompting walkouts. But I raise this issue not to discuss the relative merit of one type of music or another, but simply to observe that there is a difference between what classical has traditionally represented and what it has become.
For more than seven centuries, classical music has existed as a unique sonority best heard in a responsive acoustic hall. Classical music, until very lately, has not been amplified and for most devotees cannot be amplified without being distorted. (Amplified music can be wonderful stuff, but the great body of classical music demands to be heard directly out of the instruments.)
Moreover, classical music is not only sound; it’s often a quite complex sound. To experience a fugue, or a rondo, listeners have to remember what they’ve heard and recognize the changes in it. For more and more listenerswho, it seems, are becoming less and less exposed to classical musicthe demand is not worth it. As a result, the number of classical music listeners continues to dwindle, and the demographic keeps getting older and older. With few exceptions, concerts in Jackson Hall and even the Ryman play to a lot of empty seats.
Trying to stop the erosion, TPAC’s promoters are playing the ”Three Tenors“ card. All the music offerings, especially the 20th-century stuff, is well-known and safe, often popularized in films. And classical stars are sharing the stage with better-known pop or country performers. Our own Symphony, for instance, is making its second seasonal tour with Amy Grant. Some chalk this trend up to venality, others to realism. But if any of this music is classical at all, it accounts for a very narrow wedge of the entire cheese.
In Nashville, the problem is worsened because of TPAC’s lousy acoustics. When Joshua Bell or Yo Yo Ma plays in town, the sound from Avery Fisher Hall does not come with them. At best, listeners hear a fuzzy approximation. In a genuinely tremendous performancee.g., Jessye Norman with the Symphonydramatic charisma more than sound generates the power.
If the center for classical music in Nashville is somewhat fuzzy, there are still some smaller venues where classical music can be heard at its best. The Ryman is maybe tops among them, but to delight your ears there, you have to bruise your buns. War Memorial Auditorium is a good space, as are Wightman Chapel, a couple of venues at Belmont, and several churches. Even so, a good venue alone does not good music make. You need musicians too.
Among the smaller halls, the Blair Recital Hall, home to the Blair String Quartet, is a convenient illustration of what these venues all share. Most of the performances there are not first-rate, but whatever is done there can be accurately heard. And when the Blair Quartet, an ensemble that ranks among the best anywhere, performs in its own house, you can hear classical music at its Nashville best.
That cannot happen at TPAC. Performances in Jackson Hall are often memorable, but not because of authentic classical sound. In the smaller venues, if the sound is produced, it will be heard. As a result, some of the most wonderful music in Nashville is performed for free in these small venues by unknown performers. But only TPAC can host a full orchestra or grand opera, and that means Der Rosenkavalier can’t really be heard in our townnot the way it should be heard.
When locals or outsiders invoke the nickname Music City, classical music does not come to mind. Granted, part of this is due to the fact that our city has long been associated with country and other forms of popular music. But then, Amy Grant’s tour with the Nashville Symphony doesn’t really help change thatafter all, she is the draw, not the orchestra.
For now, classical devotees in Nashville have to take what they can get. Sometimes what they get is wonderful. Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg lately played at the Ryman with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Neither she nor the orchestra were at the top of their form. And yet, she plainly relished the responsiveness of that space, especially in drawing out long pianissimos that floated like silver filaments over the orchestra. She played to a lot of empty seats. But the chairs with ears in them were offered something unforgettable.
If classical music in Nashville isn’t everything it could be, we must still be grateful for what we do getthanks largely to the city’s smaller, acoustically sound venues. More exciting offerings are scheduled for the new year, and for this alone we should count our blessings.
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