feat. violinist James Ehnes
Dec. 5 at TPAC’s Jackson Hall
Last week was a paradoxical one for the Nashville Symphony. On Wednesday, several hundred people gathered across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame for a groundbreaking ceremony on the site of the orchestra’s new home, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which is scheduled to open in 2006. On Thursday, the news arrived that a recording by the orchestra featuring piano soloist Alan Feinberg had received a Grammy nomination. On Friday, the orchestra played, very badly, a badly chosen program in a less-than-half-filled Jackson Hall. That’s about the house the orchestra usually draws.
I’ve been following the symphony since 1995. In 2000, I heard it perform in Carnegie Hall. I’ve heard it often since, and I’ve rarely heard it play very well. But I’ve never before heard it play as badly as it did last Friday. Commonly, the playing is competently genericthe right notes in the right places, attacks and releases mostly together, but without the musicianship displayed in Carnegie Hall. The differences are subtle but realthe shaping of phrases, the choosing and executing of points of articulation, the tasteful use of dynamics, the orchestra’s togetherness.
The Nashville Symphony has played at a very high level. It did so on the recording nominated for a Grammy. What’s vexing is that most of the time it does not, which means it’s not a good bet for people who care about classical music. Listeners are likely to hear something not much better than what the sparse house heard last Friday evening. Not surprisingly, few people are willing to dress up, go out and pay money for that kind of fare.
Coming hard on the heels of the groundbreaking ceremony and the Grammy nomination, last Friday’s program was paradoxically to the point. It was “safe.” The most audacious piece, the 1947 version of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, has more in common with Nutcracker than with the Rite of Spring, which these days is safely familiar. And as delivered, the program was safer than as first advertised. The original announcement listed “The World of Paul Klee” by David Diamond (b. 1915) as the opening number. A couple weeks ago, the orchestra revealed it would replace that piece with “Rounds for String Orchestra,” by the same composer. What it actually performed was the prelude from Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921).
Hansel and Gretel is a nice little opera, nicely done a couple seasons ago by Nashville Opera. Though based on the fairy tale, it defangs the source’s grimness with musical (and, onstage, theatrical) humor that verges on slapstick. As a prelude to dramatic performance that doesn’t take itself too seriously, the music works well enough. Indifferently played Friday evening, it sounded like timidity mixed with resignation. The musical idiom was very familiar, certainly to the players, probably to most listeners. The most evident symptom of the orchestra’s inattention was the fuzziness of the ensemble sound, which should have been tighter.
An even greater disappointment was the work publicized as the evening’s main attraction. This was the first of the six violin concertos by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), featuring Canadian-born James Ehnes as violinist. Paganini is recognized as the first superstar virtuoso instrumental soloist, flaming into public acclamation at a time when opera singers were getting the solo kudos. So ferocious was his virtuosity that, early on, stories began to circulate about his signing a contract with Satan, stories that Paganini did nothing to discourage.
But advertising this defunct demonic genius as a listener-magnet was disingenuous at best. Among musicologists, these concertos are not highly regarded in themselves, mainly because they do not represent what Paganini himself played. For him as soloist, the score was merely a jumping off place for bravura improvisation, so that every Paganini performance was unique. It’s impossible now to hear his playing, or that of his contemporaries, but Friday’s Paganini did not bedazzle. The orchestral writing might better have been replaced with a cheat sheet showing only chord symbols for a simplistic harmonic rhythm. Indeed, after a long orchestral introduction, during which soloist Ehnes stood facing the house, fiddle in hand, the orchestra went essentially chordal, thrumming along in the background.
Even the long introduction was period generic, its sole dramatic use being as extended foreplay before the soloist made his entrance. When Ehnes did enter, he showed his musical chops. But whether he was playing from memory or improvising à la modehe didn’t use a scorethe music was a set of showy fragments with no formal unity or emotional resonance. The entire concerto was an exercise in bravura for its own sakea kind of circus jugglery, rather like a bluegrass fiddler playing his instrument held behind his head.
When the performance was over, most of the sparse crowd stood up, applauding energetically. This phenomenon is hard to read because TPAC audiences always stand and applaud what they’ve heard. Doubtless, they regard doing so as courteous. It’s improbable they are always pleasedthey really shouldn’t have been at the end of this concert. But even more unsettling is the question of why the orchestra’s management team continues to tolerate perfunctory performances from players who have proved they can play well. This performance was the most lackluster so far. But the norm, for as long as I’ve been listening, is complacent mediocrity.
This paradox is what Ezra Pound called a “radiant gist”: The symphony can play, but mostly it doesn’t. One likely reason is that players are bored with what they are asked to deliver. The lasinute replacement of Diamond with Humperdinck isn’t the first time such a substitution has occurred, and it is nearly always a more recent composition that is replaced by something from the 19th century. To me, this bespeaks timidity, the dread of “modern dissonance.” But it makes no sense to fear chasing away listeners if you don’t have them to begin with.
Audiences for classical music are shrinking and aging, not just in Nashville but around the world. In many countries, governments undergird the arts, and those countries often have superlative orchestras. In our country, most of the support comes from the private sector. Accordingly, the tastes of supporterswhat they want, or what orchestral management imagines they want, has a strong impact on what an orchestra chooses to play. But what an orchestra plays, I believe, is much less important than how it performs.
Orchestral ennui brought on by timid programming is surely contributing to the pervasive fuzziness I’ve been hearing in symphony performances. But whatever the cause, that lack of attentiveness must be replaced with the professional excellence the orchestra has from time to time displayed. Gimmickry is futile. It didn’t work for last weekend’s Paganini. The sensible thing to do is to play only good music and to play it well.
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