In last week's cover story (Year in Music, Dec. 15), we documented what has been a landmark year for the city's rock and rap scenes, with stunning entries in genres as far afield as indie pop, R&B and dance. As for country, watch for our 12th annual Country Music Critics Poll, coming Jan. 19. But wait, you say, with well-founded indignation: What about jazz and classical, which both offered momentous occasions in Music City in 2011? Cue up the needle on the iPod Touch and review some of the highlights:
• Alias Chamber Ensemble, the most adventurous classical music group in town, has really been on a roll this year. In February, they released their debut album, Hilos, on the Naxos label. The recording was devoted to the work of rising star Gabriela Lena Frank, a California-based composer and pianist whose mother is a Peruvian of Chinese descent, her father an American of Lithuanian-Jewish heritage — a multicultural background that aptly parallels Alias' exceptionally wide-ranging repertoire. The debut performance by Frank and Alias members was spectacular, and the disc earned Alias its first Grammy nomination. The group's fall concert featured the work of Kenji Bunch, and as far as we know, the first local performance of a piece using teakettle.
• Not to be outdone, the crown jewel of the city's arts, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, started the year by winning three Grammys — all for its acclaimed recording of Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony and Deus Ex Machina — and ended it by earning a nomination for another (in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category, for the NSO's recording of Joseph Schwantner's Concerto for Percussion & Orchestra with percussionist Christopher Lamb). Few cities our size can claim to have two Grammy-nominated classical ensembles, but who's bragging? For many, though, the NSO's finest hour this year came last June with its dynamic performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, which found conductor Giancarlo Guerrero exhorting his orchestra to reach for the heavens, and beyond.
• After staging a strong season of classic operas, including performances of Carmen, La Traviata and Pagliacci, Nashville Opera finished the year on a particularly high note: The performing arts group officially satisfied all the conditions of a 2008 Kresge Foundation Challenge Grant, among them raising $11 million — no small feat in the current economy. For meeting the challenge, the company was recently awarded $350,000 by the Kresge Foundation. In a press release this week, Nashville Opera CEO Carol Penterman said the grant "allows the Noah Liff Opera Center to not only become a self-sustaining asset, but will also provide the company with greater financial security."
• Continuing one of the great comeback stories in classical music, indefatigable 82-year-old Leon Fleisher returned to conduct Brahms' Symphony No. 4 with the Vanderbilt Orchestra at the Blair School of Music's Ingram Hall in February. Stricken at age 34 with a rare condition that affected the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand, Fleisher was forced to end his brilliant career as a pianist — which only prompted him to launch a distinguished second life as a professor and conductor. Cured by experimental procedures after a three-decade search, Fleisher is currently enjoying a late-life surge in popularity that is doubly sweet — capped by his memoir My Nine Lives, which he signed at Blair for grateful fans.
• The youngest music in Nashville last October was being made by an 81-year-old man: saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins, who took the Schermerhorn's stage bent nearly double over his instrument in a steady shuffle and left it practically duck-walking. Rollins was greeted like the royalty he is, and the master responded with a torrid, playful 90-minute set that found him incorporating everything from hip-swinging calypso beats to tossed-off snatches of "Jingle Bells" and "Oh! Susanna." Over the backing of an ace quartet, Rollins delivered stabbing staccato bleats and honking bass blasts as if racing the speed of inspiration — then stopped the show to wrap his audience in a bear hug of a spontaneous benediction. More jazz shows of this caliber, please, Nashville.
• If you don't know Chris West, you might suspect he's been on a yearlong meth bender — how else could the jazz saxophonist put out three full-length albums in less than 12 months? But fear not: The only addiction plaguing West is a wicked jazz jones, as evidenced in the Surprise Trilogy collection, a gumbo of top-notch jazz, blues and greasy New Orleans funk seasoned with a sprinkle of sly musical humor and a heavy dose of exceptional blowing by West and guests Jeff Coffin, Don Aliquo and Rod McGaha. The three discs were unveiled several months apart throughout 2011, and the album release shows were incendiary.
• Speaking of Jeff Coffin, the tireless jazz saxophonist stayed absurdly busy in 2011. The erstwhile Belá Fleck & the Flecktones/Dave Matthews Band member took some time from his crammed schedule to release an excellent live recording by his own group, Jeff Coffin and the Mu'tet Live! The two-disc set includes noteworthy contributions from bassist Felix Pastorius, trumpeter Bill Fanning, drummer Jeff Sipe, guitarist Mike Seal, and on keys, Kofi Burbridge and Nashvillian Chris Walters, who released a terrific album of his own this year, Yay! Everbody Yay!
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