Pianist Emanuel Ax performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 highlights a strong Nashville Symphony program 

Ax'll Rise

Ax'll Rise

Pianist Emanuel Ax is certainly one performer who doesn't mind taking a stand on a little controversy ... as long as it comes with applause.

Like the proverbial duck in a shooting gallery, the issue of audience applause between movements in classical music keeps popping up periodically, inviting potshots of discussion and disagreement. For those who have witnessed Ax's charming mix of musical sophistication and down-to-earth demeanor, it probably isn't surprising on which side of the issue he stands. In a blog entry from several years ago that drew both support and rebuttal, Ax wrote, "I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music, rather than a regulated social duty." After all, he reminds us, many of the first movements of Mozart and Beethoven concertos end with a flourish, practically inviting the audience to show approval. That sticky quandary of "do I or don't I" will certainly confront concertgoers this weekend as the Nashville Symphony and music director Giancarlo Guerrero welcome Ax for one of Ludwig van Beethoven's most Mozart-like concertos, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 (which was actually begun before No. 1) owes much to the overwhelming influence of Mozart. It has the same instrumental complement (no clarinets, trumpets or tympani) as Mozart's last piano concerto, the K. 595, and it's in the same key. Listeners should also keep their ears open for little gems of Haydn-esque humor scattered throughout.

In addition to Ax's Nashville appearance to perform the No. 2, his fall schedule includes several performances around the country of Beethoven's Emperor concerto as well as Mozart's concertos Nos. 22 and 25 — a confirmation that the tail end of classicism is fertile ground for Ax's performance style, which seems to alternate between determined poise and sheer ebullience.

Guerrero will open the concert with the world premiere performance of Ariadne auf Naxos Symphony-Suite, a new arrangement of music from Richard Strauss' 1916 opera by NSO music librarian D. Wilson Ochoa. Retaining the same instrumentation as the opera (with an English horn added to portray some vocal lines), Ochoa constructed a continuous suite of symphony length from elements of Strauss' 1912 and revised 1916 versions.

"After I discovered the breathtaking music from Ariadne auf Naxos," Ochoa writes in his program notes, "I began a search to see if an orchestral suite of this music had been made so that the NSO could play it in concert, and was shocked to discover that this had never been done. After having been invited by Maestro Guerrero to write something specifically for him, and given his love for opera, I knew that making a suite of excerpts from Ariadne would be the perfect project."

Ochoa has used only Strauss' materials to guide the necessary transitions between sections. Because of this respectful attention, concertgoers will still be immersed in Strauss' delightful, but admittedly offbeat, mix of lush fin de siècle Romanticism (as in his previous opera Der Rosenkavalier) and the chromatic complexity of Salome and Elektra.

To conclude the program, Guerrero turns to a contemporary and colleague of Richard Strauss, the English composer Edward Elgar and his In the South (Alassio). This concert overture was inspired by a trip to the Italian Riviera town of Alassio in the winter of 1903-04 taken by Elgar and his wife. By that time, Strauss had already turned his attention from the genre of the programmatic tone poem to opera; and Elgar, who was widely known for his very programmatic Enigma Variations, was beginning to consider music without a program, notably the symphonic form.

Nevertheless, In the South is impressionistically evocative of the landscape Elgar encountered there — streams, hills, mountains, old Roman ruins — without having a specific program. While some may find parallels with Strauss in the lush opening and a bit in the brash closing, there is no mistaking Elgar's distinctive and seductive lyricism in a soft middle section passage that is introduced in the warmth of the solo viola and later taken up by a solo horn. But it is in that brash closing that Elgar creates the perfect uplifting concert finale — a grand gesture of optimism and joy for time well spent.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.


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