As the Lovin’ Spoonful noted, there are thirteen hundred fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville, and almost any concert-goer to last weekend’s symphony pair could tell you that most of them were at TPAC to see guitarist Christopher Parkening in a performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. The guitar aficionados very much received their reward, but even more remarkable was the symphony’s return to the fine playing form that it has so often demonstrated during its golden jubilee season.
The concert began with a bright and happy warm-up for the whole ensemble, Blas Galindo’s Sones Mariachi. It’s one of those popular curtain-raisers very much in the hands-across-the-border style of post-World War II pan-American composersreaders familiar with Copland’s El Salon Mexico will know what I’m talking about. This piece was marked, however, by the addition of an authentic Mexican voice that popped out from time to time in the form of Indian motifs on percussion and woodwind. With their evocation of the Mariachi sound, the trumpets were in splendid form throughout. Violins managed an atmospheric, throbbing style of playing, and the harps led that pointed plucking sound with which the composer approximated the guitars of a Mariachi ensemble.
There were only two moments of uncertainty, and I’m not at all sure that they weren’t intended by the composer to convey a band fueled by a bit too much Cuervo. One was an entrance by the horns about a third of the way into the piece, and the other was the entrance of the xylophone or marimba, I’m not sure which, where the ensemble wanted it slower but the performer wanted it faster. Considering the contrasting needs of various orchestral forces in the piece, the balances were very good throughout, especially the brass/string balance. By the time of the wonderfully loony-tunes ending, both the players and the audience were having a fun time. Kudos to the percussion for their work in the final pages.
Before I address Christopher Parkening’s solo performance in the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez, let me point out that, from the outset, I thought the choice of repertoire was not especially congenial to his tastes and talents. In live performance and on recordings, Parkening has displayed a particular genius for transcriptions of baroque music, especially the works of J.S. Bach. He has always brought to his Bach a sureness of touch, an intimacy and a conviction that he has never brought to the more standard works for guitar by composers such as Giuliani, Tarrega, Albeniz, Villa-Lobos or Rodrigo.
Even when taking this into account, I thought Parkening’s performance was still not up to his standards; despite the appreciation of most of the audience, I didn’t think it a particularly successful one either. Throughout each of the movements, the guitarist’s performance was plagued by unwanted episodes of harsh tone. The passagework was labored, especially in the first and last movements, and some of the solo passages were performed in so perfunctory a manner that they seemed more like an afterthought.
Despite these formidable problems, Parkening did manage some good playing, especially in the second movement cadential material. In the fantasia-like sections, his genius for the baroque showed through in personable and ruminative playing that sounded perfectly improvised. Also, when called upon for sul ponticello effects throughout the three movements, his tone was sweetness itself.
Perhaps Parkening was having an off night in the scheduled work, but some of his genius as a performer could be heard in his two encores, the first a Turkish-flavored etude by an Italian composer and second a piece entitled “Sunburst” by California composer Andrew York. In the first encore, Parkening managed a virtuoso flurry of notes that was much more authoritative than any of his playing in the Rodrigo. Although the York piece featured some labored passages, its general tenor of Bach-meets-Vince Guaraldi was a good display of Parkening’s temperament. These encores were more than competently performed, but I couldn’t help thinking that many in the audience might have done just as well. (Chet Atkins was four seats awayit was that kind of audience.)
In contrast to the guest soloist, the soloists in the orchestra did very well by Rodrigo’s caballo de guerro. For the guitar to be heard at all in a concert setting, Rodrigo frequently used individual instruments as points of color rather than as parts of a large section underpinning the soloist. This gives a gossamer transparency to the orchestral parts of the Concierto, especially in the woodwind solos. The best-known of these star turns is the English horn solo at the opening of the second movement, and Dewayne Pigg deserves a special pat on the back for his contribution. But the orchestra as a whole provided accompaniment that was more like a solo partner or a chamber ensemble, so transparent and apt was its sound. One of the best moments of the whole performance came toward the end of the piece when, Parkening having turned in a plunky solo section, the orchestra swept in with a ritornello that fairly throbbed with emotion and conviction.
Hector Berlioz seldom made much money as a composer. Throughout his career, he kept the wolf from his door by working very successfully as a journalist; consequently, his prose style is as polished as his compositional style. I mention this because, in his autobiography, Berlioz has much to say about the Symphonie Fantastique. He constantly mentions the pitfalls and high points of the performances that he heard and conducted.
I am happy to say that the NSO’s performance of the Symphonie was one in which Berlioz would have found great pleasure. In each of the five movements, there were many instances of skillful and felicitous touches, both in Kenneth Schermerhorn’s overall concept of the performance and in the realization of that concept by the orchestra’s performers. Balances, critical to the musical argument of the Symphonie Fantastique, were correct throughout, and the strings displayed a sweetness of tone that they have often lacked.
Woodwinds, the foundation of all that is particularly French in orchestral music, were even better than their usually high degree of polish. Dewayne Pigg and Bobby Taylor’s English horn and oboe duet at the beginning of the third movement, Lee Levine’s hooty clarinet performance in the last movement, and the bassoon work in the “March to the Scaffold” fourth movement can all be singled out for particular praise. The percussion section deserves special praise, not only for its unbuttoned performances in the last two movements, but also for contributing to the sense of impending storm at the end of the third movement. And the brasses, especially in the last two movements, really cooked. Their Dies Irae counterpoint to the strings’ swirling witches’ dance was perfectly judged and visceral in its power.
Oddly enough, there is no plethora of really good recorded performances of the Symphonie Fantastique. The NSO, now embarked in a recording project, should seriously consider making their recording of this work available.
For some weeks, I have intended to pass on my enthusiastic response to a performance by one of Nashville’s newest ensembles, the Christ Church Schola Cantorum. Once again, however, I find I am coming to the end of my remarks with not enough space to give this group its due. In existence for just a few short months, the Schola Cantorum has managed an ensemble sound that is better blended and more characteristic than many organizations of much longer standing. The group deservesand will receive, I am surethe support of Nashville’s music lovers. Its next performance, under music director Michael Velting, will be a choral evensong April 21 at Christ Church. If you like choral music, you will not need my recommendation; you will already have made plans to attend.
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