Wonderful Woodwinds 

A real Deal with Dvorak

A real Deal with Dvorak

A return to the podium by Karen Lynne Deal, fine playing by a new star in the constellation of violinists, popular works by Copland, Mendelssohn and Dvorák, and amazingly fine performances by all of the woodwind players made the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s most recent concert pair an outstanding evening of concert going. From the very first notes of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, it was clear that the emphasis for the evening would be clarity and balance, and the NSO’s performance of the Copland score had all the feel of a chamber orchestra. The clarinet section must be singled out for their good and steady tone; Lee Levine’s lead-in to the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” was particularly well done.

Because of its obvious pastoral theme, much of the Copland score calls upon the fullest talents of the woodwinds, none of which were found wanting in the least. Many of the orchestra’s other members, however, conveyed a feeling of noninvolvement. This may have been due in part to Ms. Deal’s somewhat deliberate choice of tempi, but I think it had much more to do with a lack of fluidity; slow tempi alone could not account for the sometimes labored passages.

Another flaw in the orchestra’s ensemble sound became increasingly discernible during the Copland: When trumpets and trombones play much louder than medium volume, they tend to overpower the entire string section. This was so noticeable that my 11-year-old nephew, experiencing his first symphony concert, remarked that the trumpets and trombones were very loud. The problem may be due to Jackson Hall’s acoustics, but until the symphony adds its promised extra string players, the brasses should consider pulling back some.

The Mendelssohn E-minor violin concerto introduced 1993 Naumberg Prize winner Tomohiro Okumura to Nashville audiences. Mr. Okumura is certainly possessed of a powerful technique, and I could hear no pitch problems, but after two movements I found the unfailing perfection of his vibrato wearing. On the other hand, his serenity was just right for the middle movement, but I wished for much more involvement, much more purpose in the outer movements. In keeping with the tone established by the soloist, the orchestral accompaniment was workmanlike, but it didn’t have that true Mendelssohnian bounce. Mr. Okumura certainly has technique to burn—all he needs is a can of gas and a match.

I love the music of Antonin Dvorák. His likeable personality and his fund of beautiful melodies make him my desert-isle composer, so there are very particular things that I listen for in performances of his works. To my mind, the finest performances of his symphonies are marked by the same freedom of tempo and dynamic that inform the best performances of his Slavonic Dances. Like the dances, his symphonies should revel in colorful instrumental detail and unflagging melody, with both ensemble and conductor holding a little something in reserve for the big passages. After all, Dvorák’s earliest hero in the realm of composition was Wagner, not Brahms.

Ms. Deal’s approach to Dvorák’s seventh symphony was very reminiscent of the way Karajan recorded this work, with both the strengths and weaknesses that this approach implies. But if you like Karajan’s deliberate tempi and unmistakably personal emphasis, then you no doubt would have been pleased by Ms. Deal’s reading. I prefer a somewhat less Brahmsian Dvorák, so I found the overall tempi a little slow from the very beginning. To my ears, the music often lost its contour and became ponderous when it should have been grand.

As in all of the performances at this concert, the woodwinds did a fine job with coloristic details. Mention must also be made of the horns’ finely balanced playing in the symphony’s first movement. Unlike the horns in the two or three other orchestras that I attend with some frequency, our section here in Nashville does not cause the flying loges to levitate when a piece calls for horn power. One of the performers did, however, have a frequent problem with mini-clinkers. The problem wasn’t bad enough to spoil the performance—but it was audible. The violins also contributed some scrappy playing in the first movement: When called upon to play above a mezzo-forte, their good ensemble sound began to break, and they lost the sheen that the best bodies of strings strive for.

In the second movement, the overall concept was well carried out, but the music could have used a bit more bloom or dynamic swell in some of the fantasia-like sections. Again, the strings needed more sheen, but the woodwinds were superb.

The third movement of Dvorák’s seventh is nothing more than one of the Slavonic Dances on a slightly larger scale. I missed the luftpausen, though—to get a sense of the effect this movement should convey, think of that giddy feeling you get when a roller coaster goes over a hill. Fiery trills by several instrumental groups were more than adequate, but both the horns and violins needed just a little more passion, and in a couple of passages the violins began to wobble. In passages where the orchestra was going full tilt, the timpani needed more power. I hate to keep stressing the excellent work by the winds, but, once again, it was superb.

The finale was well done, but it would have been better had the strings—especially the first violins—not sounded rushed in several passages. There was a need for more dynamic shaping of small clusters of notes, and the trombones had a few moments of somewhat coarse playing. The orchestra did, however, handle the contrast of light and dark very well. There are several passages in which each of the woodwinds is called upon to sound some very ominous fanfares, and the bassoons shone here. The return to a sunny mood was handled particularly well, and the endings—all of them—were very well done.

I admit that some of these comments come close to being Beckmesserish, but for that “helluva” performance, the devil is in the details. (By the way, I heard a few rebel yells scattered in the well deserved applause. Way to go Nashville!)

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