By Allison Centobene
On Saturday, February 2, the Nashville Symphony gave a performance of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Schumann to a nearly full house, featuring guest conductor Markus Stenz. The concert showcased three quite different pieces that still had the same overall aesthetic. The evening began with Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage by Felix Mendelssohn, followed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Concerto No. 23 in A Major for Piano and Orchestra, featuring guest artist Juho Pohjonen at the piano. The concert concluded with Robert Schumann’s rather dark, yet hopeful Second Symphony in C Major.
Guest conductor Markus Stenz boasts a very lengthy and impressive career, currently serving as the chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and also conductor-in-residence of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. He also possesses a large discography, including all of Mahler’s symphonies. His experience, skill, and expressivity were all showcased quite well through the chosen repertoire of this performance.
Felix Mendelssohn completed the composition of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage in 1828, and released an edited version in 1834. It is based off two related poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. These poems depict the anxiety of a sailor out at sea in calm waters, and the followed relief and excitement as wind begins to blow, as the sailor could then safely return to land. Mendelssohn depicts these feelings through two sections in the piece: an opening full of long, sustained melodies that evoke a sense of stillness, and a faster, almost triumphant section with much more movement.
The soft, delicate opening in the strings was a perfect way to ease the audience into an evening of music. The excellent blend and balance of the strings moved so seamlessly to the woodwinds, creating such a beautiful blend of colors. Later, the shift in character to the “windy” section was very tasteful and added just the right amount of interest to the piece. The repeated arpeggios and scalar passages in the woodwinds and strings sounded absolutely effortless, and added so much to the second section. Stenz and the Nashville Symphony stayed true to Mendelssohn’s style and effectively captured the feeling of a sailor at sea. It was truly a pleasant listening experience, and quite possibly the best part of the entire program.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart debuted his Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major in the spring of 1786, with himself as the soloist. Mozart was one of the leading champions of the solo concerto, churning out a considerable number of them during his time in Vienna. It was especially beneficial to him, as it filled both of his roles as a performer and a composer and allowed for just the right amount of experimentation and creativity, while still being extremely crowd-pleasing. This concerto fits into that mold perfectly.
This concerto was performed beautifully by guest artist Juho Pohjonen. His extensive performance, competition, and recording experience was made evident by his calmness and skill in a performance setting. Pohjonen possessed all the structure, poise, and virtuosity needed for a stellar performance of Mozart, and received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the audience.
The first movement of the concerto began with an all-too familiar theme, stated very confidently by the orchestra. This statement was followed by an equally confident and elegant response from the piano soloist, with some interesting liberties in tempo taken at the end of phrases. Very delicate, yet complicated wind solos wove in and out of the piano solo passages, making for a lovely and varied texture. The movement concluded with an excellent interpretation of the cadenza, and in Mozartian fashion, yet another statement of the themes by the orchestra.
The second movement is quite a strange one, as far as Mozart goes, and can easily seem disconnected from the other two movements. Juho Pohjonen and the Nashville Symphony made sure that this was not the case, and kept the same tone throughout, despite the drastic shift in mood and key. More conversation-like trading between the orchestra and piano soloist were sprinkled throughout this movement, always feeling natural and seamless.
Not a moment too soon, Mr. Pohjonen jumped straight from the somber mood of the second movement to the refreshing, energetic first phrase of the third movement. It was a very exciting final exhibition of the soloist’s talent, and a perfect conclusion of the first half of the evening. A lengthy standing ovation followed, and was well-deserved by the orchestra, conductor, and most of all, the soloist.
Robert Schumann completed his Second Symphony in C Major in 1846, after a difficult period of nervous breakdowns. He considered the composition of this symphony a sort of healing experience, although the effects were unfortunately only temporary, as he died in an asylum in 1856. The influences of J.S. Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert can clearly be heard throughout the symphony, but with Schumann’s own touches added in. The first movement has a much darker mood than anything else on the program, but continues to progressively become lighter and more triumphant, save a temporary lapse in the third movement, with Schumann even adding that he felt “more like himself” when composing the final movement.
The dark, somber tone of the first movement was set by the trumpets from the start, and continued to build throughout. This movement was the first time the brass was showcased in its entirety, and it added much needed depth, intensity, and excitement. The huge ending of the first movement was so dramatic that it almost felt like the end of the entire symphony, evoking quite a bit of applause from the audience.
A return to a lighter texture in the second movement offered a much-needed break from the intensity of the first. Markus Stenz conducted the orchestra at a nearly breakneck pace, but it was handled masterfully by the orchestra. The accelerando near the end was faster still, and not once did any member of the orchestra falter. The violins especially played every difficult passage with such grace and ease that the audience gave yet another bout of lengthy applause before the end of the piece. It was truly impressive to witness.
The third movement offered a stark contrast to the excitement of the second, and served as a reminder of the more serious origins of the piece. The movement really captures Schumann’s emotional turmoil during the composition of the piece, and Nashville’s interpretation of the movement captured that well. Beautiful woodwind solos and extended string melodies floated throughout, tugging on the heartstrings of everyone present.
The fourth movement, much like the second, is a much-welcome return from the darker mood of the previous movement. The strings once again masterfully executed every technical passage with such facility, leading right into a large, triumphant ending. Once again, the movement was extremely well-applauded by the audience, and served as an exciting end to a night of generally even-tempered music.
Overall, the concert was exactly what one would expect from a night at the symphony, and it was very well-received by a large crowd. Both the guest conductor and guest artist performed beautifully, and the Nashville Symphony played as solidly and expressively as always. While not the most varied program Nashville has ever performed, it was well-done and a pleasant experience through and through.