Worth a Listen 

A top-notch orchestra comes to town—underscoring the need for a top-notch modern hall

A top-notch orchestra comes to town—underscoring the need for a top-notch modern hall

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, one of the best of its kind in the world, is coming this weekend to play at the acoustically superb Ryman Auditorium. The arrival of SPCO on the heels of Nashville Opera’s recent productions of Carmen and Porgy and Bess at TPAC—where the acoustics are at best ecru—underscores yet again how much Music City needs a magnum performance hall.

Both Carmen and Porgy were warmly received—even though what listeners heard was a pallid and distorted fax of what the musicians had to offer in rehearsal. Nashville’s classical musicians, and their audiences, deserve a lot better. But Nashville needs a larger and more vocal classical audience before we can expect to see the construction of a first-rate venue.

Fortunately, new listeners are emerging regularly—you can hear them clapping between movements at Nashville Symphony’s TPAC performances. However unsophisticated that applause might seem to seasoned audience members, it is indeed a good sound. Our city needs a lot more of it. When enough listeners demand superb music in a responsive venue, they will get it—and not before.

Let’s hope lots of new ears come out to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, featuring violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Now in its 39th year, the SPCO attained national and international acclaim early on as one of the best—and most adventurous—ensembles of its kind. Astutely guided by its first director, Leopold Sipe, SPCO got to Carnegie Hall by the beginning of its second decade and drew very good reviews. It was then that SPCO chose the motto it still uses today: “Music on the move.”

This motto was taken to heart by the ensemble’s second music director, Dennis Russell Davies, a long-haired dynamo passionate about motorcycles and baseball as well as contemporary music. During his eight years with the orchestra, Davies launched innovative programming, pairing traditional concert repertory with contemporary works and world premieres. He improved the ensemble’s musicianship by hiring better musicians and led the orchestra on highly praised tours. Leaving the SPCO to become general music director of the Stuttgart Opera, he was succeeded by Pinchas Zukerman.

Zukerman lifted SPCO to a new level of prominence, tripling the subscription base and expanding the concert season. SPCO was repeatedly invited to prestigious festivals (Ravinia, Palm Beach) and to the Kennedy Center and Carnegie and Avery Fisher halls. It was during this time that SPCO made a dozen recordings on RCA Victor, CBS Masterworks, and Philips Classics labels, featuring artists like Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, and Isaac Stern. Zukerman, as his crowning achievement, spearheaded promotion and development for a new concert hall, the spectacular Ordway Music Theater, which has been the orchestra’s permanent home since 1985.

After Zukerman, SPCO established a three-person artistic commission, with a director of music, a principal conductor, and a creative chair as its leadership team. Christopher Hogwood, a major British luminary, was the first director of music and continues as principal guest conductor. The creative chair has been held by John Adams, John Harbison, and, most recently, Bobby McFerrin. Hugh Wolff, the first principal conductor under the new scheme, succeeded Hogwood as music director. He will conduct at the Ryman.

The SPCO has a long discography and has spent long stretches at the top of Billboard’s classical charts. Its discs reach from Mozart and Haydn through Bartok and Kodaly to “Paper Music,” conceived and conducted by Bobby McFerrin.

That long reach will be evident at the Ryman. The program opens with Lucent Variations, an SPCO commission just completed by Michael Torke (b. Milwaukee, 1961), an adventurous and prolific new talent. The piece was inspired, Torke reports, by a nighttime electric-light parade at Disney World; his track record promises some delightfully colorful inventiveness. The program closes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, almost a miniature compared with the Seventh and Ninth symphonies, full of sophisticated humor rarely associated with the deaf Titan. The Torke and the Beethoven frame Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, featuring Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Mendelssohn, long undervalued, is at last getting the respectful attention he deserves. Often thought of as Mozart cum Schumann, Mendelssohn also metabolizes Bach into sinewy athletic grace. His only violin concerto is a major masterpiece, and Salerno-Sonnenberg can actualize its power. A prodigious virtuoso who flared out of Italy 15 years ago, she exerts herself in visceral, risk-taking performances that have evoked comparisons with rock stars. The Washington Post wrote that “she is one of the few classical artists who must be experienced in person.” She makes us understand why in Paganini’s hands the violin was called a demonic instrument.

Most importantly, the audience in Ryman Auditorium, however hard the pews, will hear whatever is played. If the playing is good—and it will be—the experience may make listeners understand why the Ryman is an acoustic treasure. It may make them understand why we need a big modern version of that treasure if we ever really want to hear Der Rosenkavalier without leaving town.

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