The coming week is full of promise for the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Under the direction of founder Paul Gambill, the ensemble will play its season finale 8 p.m. this Friday in War Memorial Auditorium. Featuring guest musicians Phil Keaggy and Jay Ungar, the program may well demonstrate why the NCO, founded less than a decade ago, has lately begun to attract national attention.
Indeed, the concert itself will attract even more attention to this deserving group of musicians: Performance Today, one of National Public Radio’s most distinguished programs, is coming to town to record the event, which will be broadcast later on 230 NPR stations to an audience of 1.6 million. (Alas, our own NPR outpost, WPLN-FM90, is not among those stations.)
Performance Today is a major national showcase for classical music, featuring new talent along with many of the world’s most prestigious performers and orchestras. Last week’s program featured Emmanuel Ax, one of the deans of classical pianism, together with some formerly unknownand very finepianists in their late teens and early 20s playing Bach and Scarlatti.
What the NCO is about can be heard both in this weekend’s program and on their first CD, issued by Warner Bros. last September. The CD and the upcoming program each offer works by prestigious classical composers (Zoltán Kodaly, Samuel Barber, Paul Hindemith) together with newly commissioned works. To my ear, the most memorable works on the CD are John Mock’s The Stone and Conni Ellisor’s Blackberry Winter, both of which fuse traditional simplicity and subtle sophistication in ways that Mozart or Aaron Copland would applaud.
Appropriately, the only established “classical” composer on this weekend’s program is Hindemith, whose Trauermusik, a lament, will feature the viola of James Grosjean. This is a late composition by Hindemith, who fled Nazi Germany to spend much of his career as an uncompromising professor at Yale. (He awarded only 12 master’s degrees during his 12 years there.) As a young man, he was as aggressively avant garde as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, finding his own professors stuffily conservative. Nowadays, however, when you can hear quartal harmonies even in the Top 40, Hindemith may seem comfortably familiar.
The Nashville Chamber Orchestra, unlike the young Hindemith, is not aggressively avant garde, but its approach may be uniquely new. The basic idea, Paul Gambill says, is to draw listeners into the hall with music and musicians they expect to enjoy, and then serve them music they will also enjoy but might not have come out to hear. The “new music” NCO offers is not only newly written; it is old music renewed by context and occasion. More and more people are filling venues to hear the ensemblewhich helps explain why both Performance Today and ASCAP (which on June 17 will present the NCO with its 1998 Award for Programming of Contemporary Music) have taken notice.
Avant garde or not, the NCO is responding ingeniously to a crucial problem. Classical music these days is in trouble. Orchestras are trying not to drown, forcing some of the most prestigious (e.g. the London Philharmonic) to develop “Pops” concerts to stay afloat. Others program music according to the Messiah syndrome, choosing pieces with such a solid reputation that audiences don’t even have to listen. The performance itself becomes irrelevantif it’s Beethoven, it must be good.
Other gambits have been tried. When the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields played at the Ryman recently, they did not list in their program the contemporary piece they chose to perform. Instead, they used a cutesy phony title, with no composer, and made the piece the subject of a little “intermission quiz” in which the audience tried to identify the composer. Kenneth Sillito, the director, explained that he used this little ploy because he found that listing contemporary composers chased ticket buyers away.
In fairness, it’s not hard to see why. Though Sillito’s selection was jazzily delightful, much contemporary “classical” music is as much fun as a calculus problem. Aficionados may love it, but they are a geek elite. Even so, the lack of general appeal has little to do with the imagination encoded into the score. The problem is translating that code into sound. Making good music is very hard to do. It’s hard enough to keep a simple hymn in tune, and singing or playing dissonant intervals is infinitely harder. You must not “correct” the tuning; you must keep the intervals precise, or you don’t get the zesty sound the composer intended. It’s for this very reason that the NCO is so successfulthe musicians perform at a high level of skill.
The Nashville Chamber Orchestra is basically strings, though other players sometimes join them. And the orchestra’s focused, lucid soundflexible, subtly expressive, in tune, together, responsive to Paul Gambill’s laconic stickis the foundation everything else is built upon. Because of this commitment to quality, they’re able to stay true to their stated programming intention: “to perform for a diverse audience a unique blend of classical and serious new music that entertains, enlightens, and provokes thought and emotion.”
The “old” classical music they play has been shrewdly chosen. They do not play Pierrot Lunaire. Even more remarkably, the new music they have commissioned has been mostly high-quality product. It’s not all equally goodthe song cycle premiered at the orchestra’s last outing was uneven. But the best of those six songs seemed to me the best new thing I had heard all year. Their CD is also very good, its noteworthy flaw being that the first half is too homogeneous. And even if Mock’s The Stone and Ellisor’s Blackberry Winter aren’t aggressively avant garde, they are nevertheless “classic,” not “pop.” Both compositions demonstrate that music can move us and keep on moving us even when written by non-European people who still have a pulse.
This kind of demonstration is likely to continue Friday in War Memorial Auditorium. Conni Ellisor will be there again, as performer and composer. And so will Mark Scearce, whose Endymion’s Sleep, a lament for those who die too young, is on the CD. But this concert will showcase Phil Keaggy and Jay Ungar, in works they composed or co-composed. The compositions, and the performances, may not be “classic” in some taxonomies. But what matters in the end is not the label on the apple. What matters is the musicwhether, after we’ve heard it, we can forget it and move on to next week’s puff of popularity; or whether we find that we have taken it with us, and, when we least expect it, hear it sound again in memory, filling us with gratitude.
Dents and scratches
After looking forward to the NCO’s upcoming performance, we might usefully glance back at the Nashville Symphony’s most recent outing. Last Friday evening at TPAC, the Symphony, fronted by Kenneth Schermerhorn, presented a “Masters of Music” program, playing some Britten, Haydn, Bach, and Bartok. The evening, though not quite the season finale, prompts several observations.
It demonstrated again that the Nashville Symphony is a pretty good orchestra that once in a while plays like a very good orchestra. But it also reminded me that the Symphony has not been getting any better this season. Some of the Symphony’s playersLee Levine on clarinet, Erik Gratton on flute, and most (though not all) of the other principals would be at home in Chicago or Amsterdam. Most of the other players are, clearly, able players. But some few do not have the chops. And it doesn’t take many to compromise the group’s soundone or two in a section are like a teaspoon of salt in glass of iced tea.
If everybody else is playing well, they may dilute the saltiness. Friday’s opening selection was a Britten piece built on a theme from Henry Purcell. It went well. For the first time this season, I think, the players visibly enjoyed themselves. But things went downhill from there.
The Britten was played best. The Bach, originally an organ piece, was played worst. The Haydn (the quartet of featured principals notwithstanding) and the Bartok were at best OK. At worst, the pieces were marred by murky ensemble playing. To some degree, this murk results because not even Schermerhorn knows what he will do next with his baton. Good ensemble demandsnay, requiresa definite reference point. Kenneth Schermerhorn, like Leopold Stokowski, looks like a maestro. Kurt Masur, leading the New York Philharmonic or the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, has the elegant expressiveness of a side of beef, but his gnarled fingers show where the pulse is. And in the end, that’s what matters.
Suffice it to say that an orchestra does not become a first-rate ensemble simply by declaring itself to be one. Nashville can certainly afford a world-class orchestra, and we certainly ought to have one. But a first-rate orchestra cannot be ordered ready-made. It has to be built. And that demands more than money. It demands the right kind of leadership.
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