Nashville Chamber Orchestra
8 p.m. Nov. 6 at The Factory at Franklin
For information, call 791-1777
The Nashville Chamber Orchestra, led by founding director Paul Gambill, has lately been attracting a lot of attention. NCO is basically a string orchestra, like the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, that adds other instruments when the music requires them. NCO’s trademark programming offers works by recognized classical masters from Bach to Bernstein alongside commissioned collaborations with well-known Music Row musicians or with talented “classical” musicians not yet widely recognizedthe Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Butch Baldassari, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and the Gypsy Hombres, for instance, and the audaciously confident J. Mark Scearce, and Austin Peay professor Jeffrey Wood.
NCO performs to sold-out houses at Caffé Milano and venues like the recital hall at Blair and War Memorial Auditorium. Performances are in relaxed mode: The players dress in black, but not black tie; Paul Gambill conducts in shirt sleeves, and talks informally with audiences.
Typically, half of each program is newly commissioned work, and thus often uneven in quality. But everything I’ve heard has been noteworthy, and some new work has been quite stirringfor instance, Harvest Home Suite, composed by fiddler Jay Ungar and guitarist Molly Mason in collaboration with NCO composer-in-residence Conni Ellisor, now available on CD.
NCO has attracted national attention as a revitalizer of what “classical music” means. NCO’s performances in March and May of this year were recorded by National Public Radio’s prestigious Performance Today, based in Washington, D.C., for broadcast through 230 affiliates nationwide. Additionally, NCO has an open invitation to perform for a live broadcast of that program.
NCO is being heard through recordings as well. Besides its earlier Warner Brothers CD (1997), the NCO appeared on three new CD releases in 1998-99, including the world-premiere recording of Paul Creston’s Concertina for Marimba, featuring Nashville marimba virtuoso Christopher Norton. And it has lately signed a contract with Naxos Records, an international label based in Hong Kong, to record a CD of Aaron Copeland’s music as part of the Naxos American Classics series. Artistically, NCO has, in the last couple of years, taken off like a shuttle launch.
But last year, despite artistic success, NCO hit a fiscal speed bump, finishing the year with a sizable deficit. Paul Gambill accepts responsibility for the mishap. Since NCO’s founding some nine years ago, Gambill has served both as artistic director and as executive director. The organization’s artistic success, ironically, has increased the weight of each of those hats. Last year, he says, NCO tried do more artistically than it had the infrastructure to manage properly.
But he is confident the bump was a blessing in disguise: “It was a real wake-up call,” he says. NCO’s board of directors has made some adjustments that are effectively retiring the debt and undergirding the organization with event sponsorships (which had never been used before). The board is also preparing to hire an executive director so that Gambill can devote all his energies to NCO’s musical activities.
There have been other adjustments as well. NCO has joined with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, Tennessee Dance Theatre, Nashville Film Festival, and the Nashville African American Arts Association to form a consortium called ArtSynergy. The consortium shares space and administrative resources that provide members collectively with advantages none could manage alone. Another adjustment has been to cut back on the performances offered this season: Last year NCO did seven performances; this year, there will be four. And still another adjustment has been to recognize Williamson County as a new market worth wooing.
Accordingly, the only performance this fall is booked into The Factory at Franklin. Called Premiere Celebration, the program celebrates NCO’s first appearance at this spacious venue, and serves up excerpts from the three programs scheduled for the spring: a Valentines concert booked into Caffé Milano; a program in late March called From Bach to Bebop, booked into both The Factory and Caffé Milano; and the season finale, Musica Latina, booked into The Factory and into War Memorial Auditorium.
Premiere Celebration will be an informal “value-added” event. The audience, seated at tables rather than in tiers of anchored seats, will be offered complimentary champagne and dessert. The full NCO does not perform in this concert. Instead, Gretchen Peters and Matraca Berg, two of Nashville’s most acclaimed singer-songwriters, to be featured in the Valentines concert, will preview that concert, accompanied by the NCO String Quartet. Conni Ellisor, backed by a jazz trio, will offer a taste of From Bach to Bebop with jazz violin improvisations on some of her own jazz compositions. And Christopher Norton will showcase his virtuosity on marimba and vibraphone for a pulsating foretaste of April’s Musica Latina. The evening promises to be relaxed and raucous.
This Premiere, Paul Gambill says, is a shameless attempt to sell a lot of tickets. Certainly it offers less of the classical component than upcoming programs will. Even so, this program is characteristic NCO stuff. What caught the ear of Performance Today is the way NCO marries the techniques and traditions of “classical” music with other traditions, including country. NCO doesn’t merely accompany a country song by becoming an oversize guitar playing the standard three chords. NCO plays music that is a genuine collaboration between Conni Ellisor, or some other orchestrator, and the country (or jazz, or Latino) musicians. These collaborations, at their best, revitalize each diverse tradition.
Paradoxically, what NCO is doing is not really new at all. What most of us think of as “classical” music (read Handel or Beethoven) is in fact the popular music of earlier privileged classes, shaped by the tastes of the affluent few. We have that music because much of it was written down. Music by the illiterate poor was not written down, and has mostly been lost. But that unlettered music was always a vital resource for “serious” composers, who simply took what they wanted.
With the coming of recordings, the barrier between lettered and unlettered was smashed. And by standing firm on the bottom line, music composed by ear in a studio (think Elvis, or The Beatles) became far more powerful and influential than any “serious” music anywhere. Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks do not need to be supported by event sponsors or endowments. Either of them could, if he wished, underwrite the NCO all by himself.
This is so even though most popular music lasts about as long as a sneeze. Nearly all “serious” music has a short life tooexcept that serious music is rarely heard widely in the first place. But not quite all of either fades away. Clearly, some music is unforgettable, no matter where it comes from. Someone once said, “Literature is news that stays news.” It’s also true that classical music is music that stays music.
NCO keeps bringing that to mind: What matters is the music, not who makes it or how it is dressed. People who already know NCO will come out to hear them again. People who do not might want to find out for themselves what brought Performance Today to town twice already this year. Premiere Celebration should be a good way to do that.
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