Something for Everyone 

Nashville Symphony Orchestra's 2004-05 season promises everything from Brubeck and Bernstein to Mozart and Messiaen

Nashville Symphony Orchestra's 2004-05 season promises everything from Brubeck and Bernstein to Mozart and Messiaen

Putting together a concert season is no easy task. There's a strong temptation to want to be all things to all people and end up compromising the product. There's a lot of music competing for people's attention in Nashville, and there's a danger that, in an attempt to broaden its audience base, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra might attempt one crossover experience too many. Fortunately, concert planners have put together an excellent season for 2004-05, which, while flirting predictably with popular fusions, offers a wide and deep range of classical music. There's more than a touch of class, and a few brave and, one hopes, delightful experiments.

The season kicks off Sept. 8 with a gala featuring Maori soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, who will be singing some of her favorite arias as part of, curiously, an otherwise all-Russian orchestral music program. Other special events sprinkled throughout the season include an appearance by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, an obligatory Christmas performance of Handel's Messiah, an intriguing synthesis of music and the words of Martin Luther King Jr., and a Valentine evening with Natalie Cole.

The children aren't left out either, there being not only a holiday concert, but also performances of the "Lost Elephant" and "Tubby the Tuba." And those drawn to "pops" crossover events aren't neglected, with performances by a Beatles tribute band, Rita Coolidge, The Chieftains, a Broadway Divas evening and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. There's plenty to entertain and delight a broad audience, but what about the classical meat and potatoes?

The SunTrust concert series accounts for the bulk of the NSO's classical musical offerings, and it's a pretty impressive lineup. The series opens Sept. 17-18 with Tchaikovsky and Grieg, whose Piano Concerto in A minor is a favorite for any pianist who wants to make a splash; on this occasion, it's Vladimir Feltsman. The concerto is a bit of a war-horse, but with care (it's a fragile piece, despite the bravura), it can be made to sound fresh even to jaded ears. Grieg's cool Nordic sensibilities are followed swiftly by the tempest and agonies of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor.

The second concert, Oct. 1-2, is an all-Dvorák affair, a sort of "greatest hits" program that includes the Carnival Overture, the Concerto for Cello in B Minor (featuring Daniel Müller-Schott on cello) and the ever-popular Symphony No. 9 "From the New World." A little too much Dvorák for some, perhaps, but safe and pleasant enough.

One of the real highlights of the season might be totally alien to some listeners: Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-symphonie, on Oct. 22-23. Those who prefer their classical music strictly pre-1900 and/or find modern classical music incomprehensible are especially encouraged to attend this celebration of life and love composed by, arguably, the most original and important composer of the 20th century. It's all here: mystery, passion, shimmering beauty and a dynamic range that leaves you straining to hear one moment and rattling in your seat your next. Not to be missed.

No less monumental in its way is Mahler's Symphony No. 9, which is paired with Mozart's Concerto for Violin No. 3 in G major in the following concert, Nov. 12-13. Violinist Grigory Kalinovsky does the solo honors, and guest conductor Bernhard Güller returns to unleash his energies on Mahler's last mighty symphony.

On Dec. 3-4, the final SunTrust classical concert of 2004 features the work of two American composers: George Gershwin and Morton Gould. Gershwin's Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra comes as a welcome relief for those who have sat through the more famous Rhapsody in Blue (its forerunner) one time too many. Rising star Stewart Goodyear will bring his jazzy sensibilities to bear at the piano. Coupled with Variations on "I Got Rhythm," Gould's austere Jekyll and Hyde Variations and murderous music for the ballet Fall River Legend—listen for Lizzie Borden swinging her ax—this is a very attractive and adventurous concert.

The NSO's classical new year opens Jan. 21-22 with a commendably strong program: Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) and Mozart's sublime Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, featuring the rarefied gifts of Angela Hewitt on piano, which is reason enough to attend. These two familiar works are presented with Richard Danielpour's "Toward the Splendid City," an accessible and swaggering homage to New York City from one of America's most distinguished and sought-after contemporary composers.

It would be hard to imagine two more contrasting works than Debussy's "Nuages" and Orff's Carmina Burana, and yet, on Feb. 25-26, they are presented back-to-back. Debussy's impressionistic depiction of clouds is billed as a "great prelude" to Orff's licentious musical excesses—a rather strained way of trying to link the two pieces, perhaps, which both deserve to be approached on their own terms. Nevertheless, these are two 20th century masterpieces, and together they promise an exhilarating evening of music.

Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor (just come along for the main melody in the second movement) and Mozart's majestic Symphony No. 39 form the backbone of the next concert, Mar. 11-12. Robert Aldridge's tone poem "Leda and the Swan" is much more than a makeweight in such distinguished company, and it's refreshing to see another little-known contemporary composer popping up in a series crammed with big names.

Richard Strauss, Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt and Brazilian composer Edino Krieger (another new name for some) are brought together in the next concert, Mar. 25-26. Schubert's Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished) and Strauss' Concerto for Horn No. 2 in E flat major are the obvious draws, but Liszt's patchy "Les Preludes" also yields rewards for the patient listener. Krieger's "Passacaglia for the New Millennium" is stylistically undisciplined and over-eclectic but should enrich those willing to make the investment.

Lush and rhapsodic, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor will be the biggest draw for some in the following Rachmaninoff/Prokofiev concert, Apr. 29-30. Discipline is required to prevent Rachmaninoff's arching melodies from collapsing or the whole thing from coming across as crass and bombastic. Pianist Olga Kern takes on the challenge. Prokofiev's sweet and sour Symphony No. 5 will also require careful baton-handling from conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. Presented alongside Jennifer Higdon's "Machine," which has been beautifully and accurately described as "one loud freight train crescendo," plenty here will reverberate well after the concert has ended.

The penultimate concert, on May 13-14, is devoted to the music of Leonard Bernstein, who mentored NSO conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn. This program of his lesser-known compositions should open the ears of those who know Bernstein only though his more popular works.

The season ends May 27-28, with one of the most appealing programs of all. First comes Kenneth Schermerhorn's "First Fierce Fires," conducted by the composer; next, the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet takes the stage for Aram Khatachurian's Concerto for Piano in D flat major. In an intriguing and daring mismatch, the NSO brings the glittering refinement and technical fluency of this French pianist to an unapologetically romantic Armenian piano concerto; the results should be fascinating. The program ends with Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life)." It's an exhausting and prodigious musical journey (six contrasting movements) and a marvelous way to sum up what should be a satisfying concert series.

Whatever your pleasure, there's plenty to entertain and delight in this series and any concert can be attended with confidence. However, if you want to dip in and out of the classical series (or if your budget is limited), go for the Messiaen, the Beethoven/Mozart program and the climactic final concert featuring the piano wizardry of Thibaudet.

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