Sophomore Season 

Adventurous music recommends the NSO’s second year at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Could it be the gilded age of classical music in Nashville has already come to an end? It seemed like just yesterday that the city’s social butterflies—bedazzled with rhinestones and bolstered with Botox—were spending $2,500 a pop for the chance to see and be seen at the white-tie gala opening of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Could it be the gilded age of classical music in Nashville has already come to an end? It seemed like just yesterday that the city’s social butterflies—bedazzled with rhinestones and bolstered with Botox—were spending $2,500 a pop for the chance to see and be seen at the white-tie gala opening of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Those days are gone. For the gala opening of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s 2007-08 season, the only thing we’re getting is José Carreras, the least well-known member of classical music’s best-known (and most thoroughly obnoxious) vocal trio, the Three Tenors. We’re told he’ll cost a lot less than $2,500. You get what you pay for.

Gold-plated galas aside, the NSO’s 2007-08 season, which was announced last week, will be a lot like the current season. There will be appearances by famous soloists—the aforementioned Carreras (Sept. 8), violinist Midori (Sept. 13-15), pianist Garrick Ohlsson (Jan. 10-12, 2008) and percussionist Evelyn Glennie (Feb. 28-March 1, 2008). Also, the season will include one prestigious touring orchestra (Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on April 6, 2008), a major recital (with the brother-and-sister duo of violinist Gil Shaham and pianist Orli Shaham on Feb. 17, 2008) and jazz (guitarist George Benson on Oct. 5, vocalist Jane Monheit on Feb. 1, 2008 and Patti Austin and the Count Basie Orchestra on April 25, 2008).

But what most recommends the NSO’s upcoming season is the orchestra’s continuing and steadfast commitment to contemporary music. Clearly, neither the NSO nor its music advisor Leonard Slatkin believes a modern orchestra should act like a museum. Classical music is a living, breathing organism—not a showcase for dusty relics and artifacts—and it’s an art that should be as relevant in our day as it was in Beethoven’s. So next season, the NSO will continue presenting a substantial modern work (part of its American Encores series) on most of its classical subscription programs. (The sole exception will be a May 8-10, 2008 performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, a 19th century mass of heavenly length that fills an entire evening.)

Promoting new music makes good artistic sense, says NSO president Alan Valentine, but it also makes good business sense. “We’ve done web surveys of our subscribers, and they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic about our contemporary music programming,” he says. “They say this kind of programming is important, and is bringing our orchestra positive national attention. That perception is absolutely true.”

Although the NSO will not lavish attention on any single composer next season (as it is doing this week with Philip Glass), it will devote two important performances to John Corigliano. A professor at the Juilliard School in New York City, Corigliano is a preeminent mainstream composer who has written important works in every genre—his groundbreaking opera The Ghosts of Versailles, the Symphony No. 1 “Of Rage and Remembrance” (which was wonderfully recorded by Slatkin and that other NSO, the National Symphony Orchestra), the Etude Fantasy for Piano, the film score for The Red Violin, to name a few. The Nashville Symphony will perform Corigliano’s A Dylan Thomas Trilogy, a sprawling, prismatic song cycle for orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus. (Slatkin conducts it Nov. 29-Dec. 1, and the piece will be recorded for later release on an all-Corigliano CD.) Also, the NSO and Glennie will perform Corigliano’s Concerto for Percussion, a work co-commissioned with five other orchestras.

Other notable contemporary composers receiving performances next season include Russell Peck (Oct. 18-20), Richard Danielpour (Nov. 15-17), John Adams (Jan. 10-12, 2008), Roberto Sierra (March 13-15, 2008) and Michael Torke (March 27-29, 2008). There will be one important difference in next season’s American Encores series: it will also include music by a few worthy (but sadly dead) American composers.

“We didn’t want to be put in the straitjacket of just playing pieces that have been played only once or twice,” says Valentine. “The main criterion is that the music be good, so we’re including older pieces that may have been unjustly neglected.” Those pieces will include William Schuman’s Credendum—Article of Faith (Sept. 27-29), Paul Creston’s Symphony No. 2, Op. 35 (Feb. 7-9, 2008) and Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 3 in One Movement (March 27-29, 2008).

Contemporary music will be the most forward-looking aspect of the next season, but the piano playing will be the most fun. Without question, the most perfect classical pianist in the world today is the American Murray Perahia. He combines an unparalleled musical intellect with a technique that knows no difficulty. His April 6, 2008 concert with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields will be one to relate to your grandchildren.

Russian pianist Olga Kern (Oct. 18-20) is a completely different animal. A Van Cliburn International Piano Competition gold medalist, Kern is remarkable for her almost complete lack of subtlety. Her style is bombs away, and on the three occasions I’ve heard her live (twice in concerto performances and once in recital), she spent most of her time beating her hapless Steinway grand into submission. So her NSO performance of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto will likely be brutal, but it won’t be boring. The same will be true of another Russian pyrotechnician, Yefim Bronfman (Nov. 1-3), who’ll play the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major.

The NSO’s Steinway should fair better under Garrick Ohlsson, who plays the Schumann Concerto in A minor Jan. 10-12, 2008. Ohlsson is a big bear of a pianist—at 6-foot-4 he looks almost as big as a Steinway concert grand—but his playing is famous for its poetry and nuance. Chinese pianist Yundi Li is still in his mid-20s, but his playing is already renowned for its style and finesse. (A Chopin Competition winner, he plays the Ravel Concerto in G major Feb. 7-9, 2008.) Pianists Ji-Yong (March 13-15, 2008), Gabriela Montero (March 27-29, 2008) and Joseph Kalichstein (May 29-31, 2008) round out the season.

Special mention should be made about next year’s roster of guest conductors. Five of those conductors—Alastair Willis (Nov. 1-3), Stefan Sanderling (Nov. 15-17), Arild Remmereit (Jan. 10-12, 2008), John Mauceri (April 17-19, 2008) and Giancarlo Guerrero (May 8-10, 2008)—are making return appearances. And it’s a good bet that they’re all strong candidates to be the NSO’s next music director. Indeed, with the exception of the 61-year-old Mauceri (who led the NSO in its recent recording of Porgy and Bess), these artists are all hot, young, charismatic conductors, mostly in their 40s (primetime), whose careers would benefit greatly from taking on an important regional orchestra. For its part, the NSO too would benefit greatly from having one of these glamour guys gracing its billboards—hey, it may be classical music, but it’s still show business.

My picks? For now, I’d say the odds-on favorite is Guerrero, a charismatic, Nicaraguan-born, Costa Rican-raised conductor who’s already led the NSO in two successful subscription concerts, followed by Sanderling (a rising star who’s the son of famed German conductor Kurt Sanderling) and Remmereit (a Norwegian-born conductor who’s equally gifted and glamorous).

As for Valentine, he refuses to confirm or deny anything. “Let’s just say there’s a lot of interest in the job,” he says.

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