The Buzzing of B's 

Classical Review

Classical Review

Now that Miss Saigon’s hymenop-terous helicopter has lifted off from the Jackson Hall stage for the last time, the Nashville Symphony last weekend made a bid for its own kind of stage spectacular. Its recent performances included the 180 voices of the Nashville Symphony Chorus, a snappy overture by Samuel Adler, and works by that hive of “killer” B’s: Beethoven, Britten, Bernstein, and Borodin. The buzzing hasn’t stopped yet.

Samuel Adler has been featured guest at both Belmont University and Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music of late. The homage continued Friday and Saturday nights as Adler’s former composition pupil, Kenneth Schermerhorn, led the NSO in Centennial, A Celebration for Symphony Orchestra. It was a splendid and peppy concert opener; the outer sections were reminiscent of Copland, while the middle section featured jazzy winds and strings that sometimes put the listener in mind of Ginastera’s Argentine dances. Special praise should go to principal timpanist William Wiggins, who surely earned his money both nights with the splendid flurry of notes that opened the piece. Kudos also to the horn section in particular and to the brasses in general for their soaring performance here.

If the ensuing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 also soared, it was in the manner of that young woman in the swing from Fragonard’s painting. In conception and pace, this was an 18th-century approach to the music—more Mozartian than Beethovenian. Those happy feelings upon arriving in the countryside never quite reached the expected transports of joy. The babbling of the brook was very subtle, more like the sigh of a fountain at Versailles. The rustic dance was a very sedate affair, proper for Marie Antoinette’s entourage in milkmaid drag. And Bill Hall would hardly interrupt programming for a special bulletin concerning this storm.

If I wanted to hear a bit more of Beethoven the romantic rebel, Maestro Schermerhorn did make a case for his approach. The relaxed atmosphere of this country life seemed to favor the NSO’s winds: They breezed through all the movements of this pastoral panorama with a special delicacy. The flutes were especially telling in the thunderstorm parts, and the double reeds were delicious in that third-movement rustic dance.

Speaking of the thunderstorm, Schermerhorn’s “Enlightenment” approach really tied this music into its models and its near contemporaries. Churning strings were reminiscent of the “Chaconne” from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan; there was something of the terror from Mozart’s Don Giovanni; and the shrillness of the flutes brought back memories of Rossini’s storm music. Throughout the performance, the relaxed tempi allowed NSO members to pay particular attention to phrasing, and the precision of their approach made the final pages of the last movement particularly fine.

There were, however, two continual problems with the performance I attended. For the first time this season, the first violins seemed to have ensemble difficulties. Not only did some members stick out, but the whole section also had trouble playing together in almost every movement. These problems in turn exacerbated other flaws, such as coordination between the violins and winds in the first movement and between the violins and violas in the finale. In addition, the horns were underpowered throughout the performance. This was a particular problem in the first movement, but the storm music lacked a horn-driven punch as well. Perhaps too many horns had left the stage at the end of Samuel Adler’s piece.

If Beethoven’s storm was more like a summer shower, the real meteorological monster surfaced in the last of Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Storm and all, the Britten was the most colorful and best performed music of the evening. Britten treated his orchestra like a pointillist painter treats paint, and the shifting of the NSO to the front of the stage tended to give each player his or her own sound dot. Again, this was particularly true of the NSO winds, but the large percussion forces here also benefited from the revamped stage setup. Special praise goes to the unison work of the violins and flutes in the “Dawn” section, the incredibly bright clarinet playing in the “Sunday Morning” section, and the suave playing by the brasses in the “Moonlight” interlude.

In the end, though, the storm was the real showstopper. It thundered, it raged, the sea threatened to overwhelm it; but when it died down and the clouds parted, the clarity was superb. This was Technicolor music and painterly playing.

It was Pope who noted that bees bring sweetness and light to our lives. If Britten’s music was occupied with light, the Bernstein Chichester Psalms have an ineffable sweetness that few other 20th-century choral works can approach. To be sure, the opening reminds us that the 20th century has been a time of unparalleled bitterness, yet no one has ever set the 23rd psalm to so beautiful a melody. That Bernstein couples this placidity with the roughness of “Why do the nations rage” and then reconciles these opposites is a musical wonder surpassed only by the exquisitely tranquil setting for “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

Schermerhorn’s conducting left no doubt that he learned this work at the hands of its composer. The NSO’s performance was much like the original Bernstein recording featuring the Camerata Singers, the New York Philharmonic, and treble John Bogard. The treble for these performances was Alvin Love, son of gospel singer CeCe Winans. The young Mr. Love was a most apt choice here. His Hebrew may need an extra bit of polish, but his innocent voice and his ability to sing on pitch were a winning combination. Even that slight bit of nervous quaver he displayed added to the performance—does any soul appear before the Good Shepherd without some trepidation?

The symphony players were in top form throughout. Much praise goes to the contributions of the harps and the percussion, but the viola and cello work in the third psalm was superb. Chichester Psalms should have been the chance for the NSO chorus to shine, but, alas, their performance was more like a glow. Their size militated against the intelligibility of the text, and the men in particular had some bad ensemble problems. Their gutsiness during the raging sections of the second setting was right on target, but the same approach during most of the third setting produced more of a joyful noise than a beautiful tone.

All choral sins were forgiven, however, in light of the luminous a cappella phrases at the end—they had the light of peace and the sweetness of prayer. The concert finale, the “Polov-tsian Dances” from Borodin’s Prince Igor, kept the chorus in flight and delighted the audience, but to my mind, this particular B had very little sting.

Pièces breves

♦ Elsewhere in this edition of the Scene, our Critic’s Picks column has mentioned performances by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. But if you’re reading this on Wednesday, here’s a reminder that one of America’s best-known string quartets, the Kronos Quartet, is playing tonight in Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium. As always, the program is eclectic, with works scheduled by P.Q. Phan, John Adams, John Cage, Harry Partch, and more.

♦ Our recent mention of Enid Katahn’s way with French music brought a copy of her latest CD in the mail. This release is a disc of piano music by Albert Roussel, and if you’re unfamiliar with Roussel’s music but like Poulenc, you’ll probably feel right at home. Most of the faster pieces have that boulevardier quality of Poulenc at his most urbane, but the slower pieces are where Katahn shines. Her grace and balance keep some of them from dullness.

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