Just over a week ago, in War Memorial Auditorium, the Nashville Symphony played its final Horizons Series concert of the season, and used the occasion to showcase Byung Hyun Rhee, the young Korean-born conductor who has been named to succeed Karen Lynn Deal as the orchestra’s associate conductor. (Deal is moving on to a new position at the end of this year.) The concert put the orchestra’s players as well as the slender young man in a bright sonic spotlight. War Memorial, acoustically much more responsive than any hall at TPAC, doesn’t cut much slack. By the same token, a good performance sounds particularly goodand this was a good performance. The associate conductor’s baton is passing into capable hands.
The orchestra’s sound was savoryvibrant strings, colorful winds, brilliant brassesand, even more notably, altogether precise. War Memorial gets a good bit of credit for that and also for the consistent balance in the music: Musicians, in that space, can hear one another. In such a good space, this orchestra has become a superior musical instrument.
Byung Hyun Rhee played the instrument with impressive skill. His conducting style is neatly laconic. Indeed, at times he remained nearly motionless, trusting the players to listen to one another. But when cues were crucially functional, in retards or accelerandos, or in pauses for effect, his gestures were neat and precise.
Paradoxically, his technical competence was most evident when I was not caught up in what he did with the music. He conducted four selectionstwo masterworks from the classical 18th century and two from the 20th century. He opened with Mozart’s vivaciously sardonic overture to The Marriage of Figaro, followed by Haydn’s lucid and virile “Military” Symphony. After the intermission, he returned with Debussy’s subtly Gauguin-esque Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and closed with Tchaikovsky’s achingly passionate Romeo and Juliet Overture.
The Mozart was a properly breakneck romp, full of shimmering scales and arpeggios, and knifesharp orchestral shots like punctuation marks, setting the mood for an opera in which two clever servants, a man and his fiancée, outwit their aristocratic master, who seeks to exercise his droit du seigneur over that fiancée. The Tchaikovsky, sounding like moonlight shining through stained glass windows, distilled adolescent urgencies into unforgettable tunes and throbbing harmonies, and then beat those passions to death with granite actuality. Both these pieces carried me with theman exciting opening and a somber close.
The middle two pieces I found myself thinking about rather than listening tointrigued by decisions I had not imagined. To my ears, the Haydn didn’t sound crisp enough, jovial enough; I wanted tighter joints connecting the movements. In the Debussy, the music moved too slow between too-wide extremes and wasn’t fluid enough; it felt more like a collage than the tapestry I wanted. But Rhee’s musical choices were not hackneyed, nor was their execution. They reminded me that music can never be realized once and for all, and that one version may elucidate another. Most significantly, they demonstrated that the young conductor had his keen wits about him. If this performance is anything to go by, Rhee should be warmly welcomed to Music City.
For at least six years now, the Blair String Quartet has been making some of the most memorable music in Music City. They have performed all around the country for many kinds of listeners. But when they are at home, they are the resident quartet of the Blair School of Music. At Blair, their first responsibility is to teach. Fortunately, others besides students are permitted to come and listen too.
The essential thing they do, it seems to me, is to incite listeners to listen. They do that with superior musicianship. They do it with extraordinary versatility. And they do it with audacious programming. Their final home stand of this season, a little more than a week ago, was a characteristic occasion.
The program included a canonic masterworkthe second of Beethoven’s three “Rasumovsky” quartets, composed in 1806. It also included Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7, composed in 1960. And it included the first string quartet by a living Ugandan composer, Justinian Tamusuza.
These three quite different compositions were performed in reverse order. For whatever reasons, the earliest and most traditional was saved for last, after the intermission. The first half of the evening ended with a Shostakovich miniature. The whole quartet, in three movements, lasted barely 12 minuteslucent, crystalline, bitter, tender, an ambivalent nugget of indestructible genius crystallized by the pressures of Stalinist Communism. It worked like a kind of fulcrum across which were counterbalanced Beethoven’s artesian inventiveness and Tamusuza’s exoticism.
Tamusuza grew up saturated in the music of his native Uganda. As a child he sang and played drums and the single-stringed native tube-fiddle. But he is thoroughly trained in Western music as well, holding a doctorate in composition from Northwestern University. His compositions are being widely played. He attracted worldwide attention when the Kronos Quartet included him on their Pieces of Africa CD in 1992.
In his writing, the composer has said, he is trying to “build a bridge” between the West and the Ugandan music he grew up with. The metaphor is apt: Tamusuza’s sounds, though made on Beethoven’s and Shostakovich’s instruments, are imported sounds. They do not emulate the Western tradition, but they can make us hear it with new ears.
Before the concert, ethnomusicologist Gregory Barz, assisted by five of his students, talked about Tamusuza’s music. The timbres or tone colors are drier and raspier than we are accustomed to. The tunes are always pentatonic. Melodically and rhythmically, the music is constructed of small units iterated in “ostinato” patterns. Barz identified three of these patterns, and his students illustrated how they interlock in intricate rhythmic configurations. To my ear, that kaleidoscopic intricacy was the distinctive characteristic of the music. The music engaged intellectually rather than aesthetically. It was stimulating and gratifying, and I am eager to hear more of it.
An ancient pedagogue once said: You never really know your mother tongue until you learn a foreign one. That holds for music too. The Blair String Quartet has made of Tamusuza a sound worth knowing better.
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Wonderful! We're hoping Knoxville puts something like this together, too. It's a fantastic concept!!