From the Nashville Symphony
Chestnuts and Rarities in the Summer Chamber Music Series
As the Music City slowly reopens after the catastrophe of the last year, the musicians of the Nashville Symphony are beginning to return to the stage in the Lara Turner Concert Hall at the Schermerhorn. Billed as a “Summer Chamber Music Series” the concerts are, apart from being brief, socially distanced and mask required—they’re almost “normal.”
The first concert of the series, given on May 28 & 29th, featured a rather eclectic program. It opened with a selection of pieces by J.S. Bach arranged for Marimba and performed exquisitely by Symphony Percussionist Rich Graber. The was followed by a brief introduction from Concertmaster Jun Iwasaki, who seemed as happy as myself to have returned to the hall. He then performed Massenet’s wonderfully lugubrious “Méditation” from Thaïs accompanied by Licia Jaskunas on harp. This chestnut from the violin repertoire was the perfect choice to inaugurate the transition back to normal in the Music City. Written for the break between scenes of the second act of Thaïs, the meditation depicts the title character’s brief reflection before she decides to change her life. Iwasaki’s performance was spellbinding, especially leading through the central animated section. After the “Méditation” Jaskunas was joined by Robert Marler on piano to perform another meditative piece, Marcel Grandjany’s “Aria in Classic Style.” Jaskunas and Marler displayed a sensitive awareness of each other’s lines, which was especially clear in the later parts of the score as their timbres seems to merge in and out of each other’s sound, blurring distinctions.
The evening closed with the rarely heard Souvenir de Florence by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Composed in July of 1890 and revised in 1892, the piece is a sextet (two violins, two violas, and two cellos) in a standard four movement form, with the first two movements featuring themes that the composer had preserved from his visit to Florence and the later two movements featuring a more traditionally Russian sound and style. The first movement begins, seemingly in media res, with an abrupt theme that goes through a process of developing variation before it arrives at a cantabile secondary theme which Iwasaki and Jimin Lim gave in sweeping and beautiful phrasing. My favorite, the second movement brought the other instruments into the dialogue, first the cellos (Xiao-Fan Zhang and Keith Nicholas) and then the violas (Daniel Reinker and Anthony Parce). At one point in the movement Tchaikovsky has four of the six instruments playing entirely independent accompanimental lines as the first cello and second violin share the melody. The balance and synergy were so lush and downright symphonic that for a moment I imagined I was hearing our entire orchestra onstage.
On June 4th the program was quite different, assembled of works for the standard quartet but included, in typical Nashville Symphony fashion, important works by American composers. The pieces were the second movement (“Andante Cantabile”) from Florence Price’s Second String Quartet in A Minor, the fourth movement (“Cumbia y Congo”) from William Grant Still’s Danzas de Panama, and in its entirety, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 458 (“The Hunt”).
Best known for her songs and arrangements of spirituals, Price’s Andante carries the synergy of a folk blues sound merged with modernist compositional techniques in a counterpoint that is simultaneously vivid and nostalgic. Lim’s rocking ostinato provided a foundation for Annaliese Kowert’s melodic precision in a lovely interpretation. Still’s “Cumbia y Congo,” which was composed from collected themes from Afro-Latin dances, came across with an idealism and another take on the American sound. From the generous melody to the extended percussive techniques, the piece was magnificent.
Unfortunately, set against the exciting music of Price and Still, Mozart’s “Hunt” lost some of its magic. It was played very well, especially as the theme was passed around the four performers with the light delicacy demanded by its Viennese style. However, the problem was neither the performance nor the composition, but rather the program. To be exposed to single movements from these American rarities and then to hear the entire work of an old Viennese chestnut left me off balance. That said, it was so nice to be in a hall, listening to classical masterworks again!
There are two more performances in the series, which continues June 19th and June 25-26. All performances will run for approximately one hour without an intermission. Advance registration is required. Due to safety protocols, on-site registration is not available. Registration is free, and donations are very much appreciated. There are only 500 seats available for each performance, and they are distributed on a first come, first served basis. Seats can be reserved at www.NashvilleSymphony.org/SummerChamber