The Big Build-Up 

Symphony program offers three intensely dramatic works

Symphony program offers three intensely dramatic works

Nashville Symphony w/guest clarinetist Richard Stoltzman

8 p.m. Mar. 12-13 at Jackson Hall, TPAC

Call 255-9600 for ticket information

Performances that quake your depths come sometimes when you least expect them. Take, for instance, the Blair String Quartet’s appearance two weeks ago; the composition, scored for string quartet and CD-ROM, might have been another ear-aching electronic cat-fight, like so much “avant-garde” music. Instead, it was hauntingly, unforgettably beautiful. Equally moving was Nashville Opera’s Cosi fan tutte. The music, though not perfectly realized, was nevertheless an elixir. And the opera’s staging enhanced the brilliant comedy and made it at the same time a biting, ambiguous drama akin to Don Giovanni.

Such performances are rare anywhere. And these two happened here on the same weekend. That won’t happen again soon. But the opportunity for something comparable comes this Friday and Saturday, when the Nashville Symphony performs at TPAC.

The energetically promoted feature attraction is Grammy-winning clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, who will perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. But the program also features an overture by Christopher Rouse and the long and elaborate First Symphony by Gustav Mahler. Any one of these might make the earth move under our feet—but not unless we hear them compellingly played.

Of the three composers, Christopher Rouse is the least known, though he is the only one still alive. He is scarcely mentioned in the Symphony’s press releases; Mozart, Mahler, and Richard Stoltzman—who’s hot right now—get most of the ink. Christopher Rouse is sort of snuck into the hall, lest his “modernity” spook a potential ticket buyer.

But Rouse is an accomplished composer who deserves focused attention. Prolific and versatile, he has won a number of awards—including a 1993 Pulitzer Prize—and is championed by some prestigious conductors, Leonard Slatkin among them. His compositions have been performed by most major orchestras in the U.S., and by many overseas. He has recordings on the Nonesuch, RCA, and Sony Classical labels, and Yo-Yo Ma has recorded Rouse’s Cello Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Rouse’s music, formally rigorous though intensely subjective, is marked by abrupt, explosive extremes of sorrow and upheaval, with cello or trombone crying out from time to time above thunderous percussion. (One critic has described it as “Shostakovich with an American accent.”) But the music sounds no more “far out” than Leonard Bernstein—or for that matter Led Zeppelin or Canned Heat, from whom Rouse says he learned a lot. Indeed, his composition Bonham, scored for eight percussionists, honors the memory of Led Zeppelin’s late drummer John Bonham.

Rouse will be the lead-off hitter at TPAC with his short Phaethon Overture (completed in 1986, recorded in 1996). This one is named for the son of Helios, the ancient Greek sun god later identified with Apollo. According to mythology, Phaethon wangled permission from his dad to drive the sun-chariot across the heavens. But the cart had more horsepower than he could handle, and when he went careening out of the sky, his own father was forced to zap him with a thunderbolt to keep him from torching the entire world. Rouse’s version of this hubris-flight crescendos into a spectacular crash.

Thematically, Rouse’s overture is the perfect lead-in for the Mozart and the Mahler. The Mozart piece, like Cosi, is ironized by its context. Though the music itself is lucid, masterful Mozart, an outwelling of seemingly spontaneous delight, we know that Mozart’s life was crashing and burning—like Phaethon. Mozart the willful Olympian genius would be dead in a couple of months, aged 35 and buried nobody knows where. That knowledge, surely, is what led one critic to hear in the music “autumnal” undertones.

But the music sounds less like autumn than Indian summer; it’s the last instrumental composition Mozart would complete. The score is a masterpiece of color and balance. Along with the clarinet solo, it calls for only two flutes, two bassoons, two French horns, and strings. Shades of mellowness are all. And Mozart masterfully manages the interplay of solo and ensemble throughout the concerto’s three movements.

Mozart makes the music, in each movement, out of lovely little tunes that he magically extends and transforms. As always in his works, instruments are made to sing as human voices do. This is especially noteworthy in the slow middle movement, which some listeners will recall as part of the soundtrack for the movie Out of Africa. If Stoltzman—and the Symphony—play as well as they are able to, they will make our bone-marrow tremble.

Such a result would be a hard act to follow. But Mahler, rightly realized, is up to the task. Though he died in 1911, he sounds more like Beethoven and Wagner than Bernstein and Shostakovich. He finds ingenious ways to expand the range of orchestral sound, and to permute richly varied orchestral colors. Some listeners born in the ’50s may remember that when they were in college, Mahler was a kind of cult figure, revered by young people with dilated pupils. If you had colors in your mind, he’d show them to you and make them shine.

For these listeners, Mahler’s musical persona was irresistible—the Artist as Hero, transmuting personal anguish into high art. That’s what happens in his First Symphony, the first of nine (plus an unfinished 10th) that he would compose in a little more than 20 years.

The First Symphony, completed when Mahler was 28, is not “program music” in any strict sense. But we know it grew out of an intense love affair that failed. And it clearly has a dramatic structure that begins with a pastoral awakening scene recalling Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, moving through Viennese gaiety and turbulent lamentation to a strong, quasi-military, victorious close.

Mahler’s chutzpah compels admiration, even when we smile at it. He thinks what he’s doing is important enough to linger over, and patiently palpate—and mostly we indulge him. Because there are always some wonderful audacious vistas.

The slow third movement, for instance, opens with a dirge-like minor version of “Frére Jacques” played by solo cello, joined gradually by the rest of the orchestra. After a while, this is followed by a kind of gypsy tune à la Brahms, and then a kind of folk lament. All these threads interweave and build to an ominous dirge over throbbing tympani before the sound just gradually evanesces. The whole thing tightropes over an abyss of melodrama—without falling in.

These observations, of course, are taken from a single recorded performance, made by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic some 30 years ago. Sometimes the tightrope walker doesn’t make it. The Mahler First Symphony runs for nearly an hour—about twice as long as the Mozart concerto, and six times as long as the Rouse overture. Badly played, it is hard to endure. Well played, and attentively heard, it will delight and uplift.


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