Sweet Sounds 

Tantalizing treats from Paul Sacher

Tantalizing treats from Paul Sacher

The musical world owes a great debt to Paul Sacher and his Basle Chamber Orchestra. In much the same way as kings and potentates served as patrons of earlier generations of composers, Sacher has been responsible for commissioning substantial additions to the repertoire from some of the best composers in the middle-20th century. Works by Bartók, Honegger, Martinu and Stravinsky have all had their first hearings on this city near the Rhine. Sacher’s vision of the chamber orchestra and its repertoire, as well as his remarkable series of recordings, has been a substantial legacy inherited by all of our contemporary chamber orchestras, including Middle Tennessee’s Cumberland Chamber Orchestra, whose recent series of area concerts featured one Paul Sacher original, and a very listenable new work by local musician Conni Ellisor that was much in the Sacher mode.

Sacher pieces are almost always audience friendly: They are musical statements by composers who have something to say, and they are works of high craftsmanship that are prepared for performance with uncommon care. That would be a very good description of Conni Ellisor’s Here/Now, which received its world premiere performances at the Cumberland Chamber Orchestra’s series of area concerts. Written in four contrasting movements, Here/Now owes something in structure to the classical period sinfonia concertante—the concertante parts being taken by a quartet that featured the composer and David Davidson as violinists, James Grosjean as violist, and Philip Hansen as cellist. This is an outgoing piece with a strong folkie/modal sound to the harmonies and a Bartókian drive. There is more than a hint of Nashville in the work’s frankly commercial feel. (Believe me, considering the hours of academic music I have endured, I intend that as a great compliment!) Readers who are familiar with Peter Maxwell-Davies’ An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise will understand the kind of balance that the composer tried to strike between audience acceptance and musical astringency.

I could go into particulars about the music, but I’ll tantalize you with the prospect of a very pleasurable listening experience in what, I hope, will be the near future. Needless to say, this band of crack musicians did splendidly by a work from one of their number. Their gutsy ensemble playing was aided by the acoustic space at last Saturday night’s performance in downtown Nashville’s Christ Episcopal Church. There were no pitch problems, even during the third movement scherzo, a cross between a jig and a barn dance. Special praise should go to Ellisor for her funny schmaltzy episodes, Hansen’s bolero-esque star turns on the cello, and the good-humored gypsy cafe-style playing during one of the interludes in the scherzo. Can anyone else in the band write music like this? Well, we are waiting—expectantly.

The second item on the program was a complete change of pace, the Three Pieces in Olden Style by Polish composing superstar Henry Górecki (pronounced GOO rhett skee). This is much happier music than Górecki’s massively popular third symphony, but they must try hard to please their audiences in Poland. The opening drone of the piece had some roughness, but, when the tune came in after a few bars, the performance took off and never looked back. The second movement, a slow one, was particularly well played. It was simple and clear, and the CCO’s legato playing was perfect.

The series of symphonies for strings written by Felix Mendelssohn in his middle teen-age years are finally getting the public appreciation they so richly deserve, and the Cumberland group’s performance should help build that reputation here in Nashville. No one can write scherzo-like music in so elfin a vein as Mendelssohn, and the ninth in the series of these sinfonias is one of the best for fleetness. The CCO acquitted itself admirably except in some of the fugato movements, when the sound switched from crystal to Glas-wax. To be fair to the group, this problem is in the music. Hector Berlioz, who counted Mendelssohn as a friend, was referring to the Mendel-ssohnian love of fugue when he remarked that “Félix is too much in love with the dead.”

Except in those fugal mud-baths, there was clear precise playing with punchy attacks—a hallmark of the CCO—and warm full sound. Unforgettable moments include a lovely sighing feel, à la C.P.E. Bach, in the second movement, and the hearty scherzo, reminiscent of those peasants in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in the third movement. The finale was a hell-bent for catgut rip.

The last item on the concert was a piece written for Paul Sacher, Bela Bartók’s Divertimento. It also featured the same solo quartet that performed in the Elisor, and it was a perfect close parenthesis for the evening. Again, the performance was marked by strong ensemble sound and a commonalty of purpose. Two examples of this were the menacing opening of the second movement, Molto adagio, and the splendid capriciousness of the first movement. Both of these could have easily fallen apart, but conductor Paul Gambill’s direction was sure. Some of the muddiness was also evident in the fugato moments of final movement, and some of players were going at it so hard that, for the first time in the evening, there were more than momentary pitch problems. This was, however, live music, and the intensity of the moment far outdistanced note perfection.

The Christ Church performance was the last in the current concert series, so if you missed out, it’s too bad. When you next encounter this group, they will likely have changed their name to the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Unlike those banks that change their names on a quotidian basis, the name will most likely be the only change, and this chamber orchestra by any other name will sound as sweet.

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