The Spirit Is Willing 

Local classical ensemble stays vital with new commissions

Local classical ensemble stays vital with new commissions

What Is Spiritual Music?

Presented by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra

8 p.m. Mar. 27 at Ryman Auditorium

For ticket info, call 255-9600

Classical music lovers don’t get a lot of good news these days. Fewer and fewer youngsters are playing classical music, and so never learn how to hear it. That makes it harder and harder to sell: One statistic reports that out of every 100 recordings sold in the U.S., fewer than three are classical. In a culture where everything worthwhile has to stand on the bottom line, those numbers aren’t encouraging.

Some local news, though, does look promising: The Nashville Chamber Orchestra is attracting a national audience of about 1.6 million. The NCO has caught the ear of National Public Radio’s Performance Today, which showcases contemporary performances of classical music, both new compositions and established standards. NCO’s programs fit this bill perfectly, as they always feature one or more works by undisputed masters, together with premieres of NCO-commissioned works. The commissions are commonly collaborations between Conni Ellisor, NCO’s composer-in-residence, and well-known country, pop, or jazz artists.

Last year, NPR sent a crew to record NCO’s season finale in War Memorial Auditorium, featuring collaborations with guitarist Phil Keaggy and fiddler Jay Ungar. Listener response has prompted NPR to return this year to record two more NCO programs—the one at the Ryman on March 27, and this season’s finale on May 1. Benjamin Roe, senior producer for NPR, says “I’m always on the lookout to bring to our listeners the artists, composers, and ensembles that are making a difference in the world of classical music. Based on what I’ve heard on disc, and what we’ve had the pleasure of recording, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra truly is what’s new in classical music, both in Nashville and in America.”

The programming is certainly new. But is it good? Measured against prestigious standard works, NCO performances last year and this year have contained some very good stuff—and some stuff not so good.

Commissioning new work is risky business. Last year’s finale, for example, was very uneven. Guitarist Phil Keaggy played very well by himself. But he and the orchestra never did get in synch on the composition he had coauthored; that segment was not aired by Performance Today. The part of the program featuring Jay Ungar’s fiddle, meanwhile, was brilliantly delightful, and it did go on the air.

NCO director Paul Gambill deserves praise for his audacity in choosing artists and offering commissions. What he does is attractive partly because listeners know—and he knows—that commissioned works don’t always rise to the occasion. Even more important, listeners know that, when they go to an NCO performance, they won’t just hear safe orthodoxy—and they will hear an ambitious piece of “classical” music never played in public before. This is a lot closer in spirit to what Mozart and Beethoven were doing than the all-too-popular practice of programming only comfortably familiar classical Muzak. (Even Mozart turns into Muzak if you hear the same “masterworks” again and again.)

The NCO’s commissions frequently feature the contributions of non-classical musicians (in this season’s May finale, for instance, Peter Hyrka and the Gypsy Hombres). Just as often, though, the commission is the work of a living “classical” composer, as will be the case with this weekend’s world-premiere commission. The featured composer is J. Mark Scearce, who has to share the stage with J.S. Bach.

The upcoming concert—perhaps NCO’s most ambitious to date—centers on the question “What Is Spiritual Music?” It will present a variety of offerings, including 10th-century plainchant, an African American spiritual, and some Hindu classical singing. But it will also showcase five accomplished solo voices together with the 32-voice Nashville Chamber Singers (formerly the Scarritt-Bennett Singers) performing two ambitious cantatas.

One those cantatas is J.S. Bach’s Magnificat, based on the passage in St. Luke’s gospel in which the young expectant mother of Jesus joyfully embraces the destiny growing in her womb. Intensely dramatic music, demanding accuracy, agility, and stamina from instrumentalists and vocalists alike, this piece is an artesian fountain of musical imagination. Sung by some of the most accomplished voices in our city, the performance should be superb.

The other cantata is J. Mark Scearce’s commission, Anima Mundi. A self-confident, gifted young man, Scearce seems altogether unintimidated by the company he’s keeping on the NCO program. While Bach sets a handful of verses from one biblical passage, Scearce takes his texts from a number of sources, ranging from the Book of Job and Paracelsus to Schopenhauer, Martin Buber, and Chief Seattle. All these excerpts offer variants on the theme of cosmic oneness emblematized in the “anima mundi” or “soul of the world.” If Bach’s text is rooted in a Christian particularity that his polyphonic genius universalizes, Scearce’s texts are assembled into an ideogram of universality.

But based on a recent preview performance of two excerpts from Scearce’s commission, the music impresses more than the written passages do. The words are discursive, abstract, even preachy; on the page alone, out of context, they’re off-putting—as when a zealous evangelist buttonholes you in an airport. The music, though, engages the listener’s attention and his emotions. Muscular, at once dissonant and melodious, filled with elegant surprises, it makes the Pythagorean metaphor plausible—that the universe is one single musical tone we can learn to hear. If the voices were singing in another language—Old Church Slavonic, say—the piece would be that much more powerful, unfettered by the heavy trappings of Scearce’s chosen texts.

Indeed, based on the excerpts I heard, the music says everything that the texts do—only better. And that makes me eager to hear the whole cantata in a properly staged performance. It remains to be seen just how good, or how successful, this premiere will be. But this much is certain: It’s a gutsy endeavor—and it sure isn’t Muzak.

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