A New Season!
The Nashville Symphony at the Ascend: Beethoven under the Stars
It’s been a pandemic, and after a year and a half of tracking quarantines, vaccines and rates of infections, folks are desperately trying to get back to normal. For me, and apparently for the large number of people who attended the symphony last Saturday, one of the markers of the return to normalcy is the Nashville Symphony playing concerts again. Indeed, the Ascend Amphitheater enjoyed a rather full house for the Symphony’s season opener, headlined as “Beethoven under the Stars” and featuring both Beethoven’s 5th Concerto “The Emperor,” (played by Stewart Goodyear) Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony and Samuel Barber’s plaintive Adagio for Strings. The evening got off to a bumpy start, though I don’t think it was the fault of the Symphony, and ended well enough.
Honestly, the evening’s weather was good, in fact, quite beautiful—mid-seventies and a clear sky. We parked in the lot just on the other side of the pedestrian bridge, as we always do, and walked across for the concert. My wife is 6 months pregnant but certainly up to the task for a little stroll in the night air. The bridge was full of the typical folks, lovers and tourists taking selfies in front of the skyline, buskers playing for tips. This night featured a guitarist playing/singing an old country tune and a few paces beyond a cellist playing the first prelude from J.S. Bach’s 1st Cello Suite; it was a quite pleasant moment. Then as we began to descend the other side of the bridge an itinerate white preacher with a microphone and amplifier was screaming his political ideology at us as we passed, “It’s Adam and Eve! Not Adam and Steve sinner, repent! Repent! REPENT!!!” I don’t know why he was yelling at us, since we are a simple, “run of the mill, cisgender, heterosexual” couple, but you know, it IS the south. We finally got off the bridge and were nearly run over by three passing drunks on scooters. (I’m happy to see that there are folks that are tired of people treating our city like the state’s dive bar.) We arrived at the Ascend theater to pick up our tickets 15 minutes before the show and it only took 25 minutes to get our to our lawn seats in an area peppered with a diversity in distractions.
Settling in just a few moments into the first movement of the concerto, it was troubling to see a closeup of Goodyear’s fingers running on the ivory keys but being unable to hear the piano over the orchestra. It took largely the first half of the movement for the balance to be corrected. Thankfully, by the time he reached the cadenza, the issues had been worked out and the orchestra was sounding quite nice.
Beethoven’s 5th concerto is commonly called “the Emperor” in English speaking countries, it is not a name that Beethoven knew of or certainly approved of. However, the movement does carry some significant heroic qualities that mark Beethoven’s middle period: it is in the heroic key of E-flat Major, the soloist opens and directs all modulatory passages in the movement and the primary theme of the opening movement seems to combine a fanfare with a dotted march figure.
It is this kind of topic-laden music that Maestro Guerrero is excellent at articulating, and the string section brought it to the fore with a striking exuberance. When it came time for the famous cadenza (Beethoven demanded that the pianist play what is written and not improvise themes on the spot) Goodyear brought a sense of excitement and genuine flair to these simple yet virtuosic variations on the movement’s themes—particularly by isolating and emphasizing the lyrical central section of the final cadenza and with light, gentle trills that brought out nostalgia for the classical side of Beethoven here, at the height of his romantic poetry. Needles to say, by the end of the first movement, I was “into it.”
The second movement’s quiet nocturne allowed me to settle in and recognize my surroundings. Look at the distant river, the flashing lights streaming quietly heavenward from Nissan stadium, and the small family in front of us, a woman who was managing to keep her two school-age sons attentive through the entire concert. Goodyear’s dialogue with the orchestra was amazingly eloquent and I was quite lost in the moment when the music from a passing car blaring Shania Twain (“Man, I feel like a woman!”) shook me from my reverie. In the third movement, from the lovely, buttery toned transition on Titus Underwood’s oboe to the grand arching theme thundered by the whole orchestra, it was made clear that the Nashville Symphony was back and ready to play.
After the first piece, Maestro Guerrero took the moment to speak. He mentioned the catastrophe of twenty years ago, which this concert was meant to memorialize, and tied it to the current epidemic. He described Barber’s Adagio as a piece that was played often twenty years ago to lament the catastrophe. He then offered the final piece, the 5th symphony as the most famous musical composition in the world, another of Beethoven’s great, heroic compositions, and dedicated it to the essential workers, from grocery clerks to health care specialists whose work allowed us all to gather tonight. There was a strong response from the crowd and he turned to begin the Adagio.
The problem with the Adagio it that it is a slow, gentle depiction of tremendous suffering. Its slow, ascending stepwise motion moving in tandem with rigid harmonies depict a sad aural circle that seems to have no release. As a plane flew overhead again, my thoughts wandered to the 9/11 attackers and the ensuing war. We have just exited Afghanistan, after two decades and the women of that country are returning to their veil of religious conservatism and dogmatism. Their education will soon be forbidden and the hate for our country will grow again, sowing the terror that started that war in the first place. Sitting in a largely unmasked crowd as infections in Tennessee top the world’s pace, I mourned the delta variant and worried for the slowly emerging “mu” variant. Round and round the suffering goes. The performance was so stirring I was devastated, wondering why they would program such a work in the middle of COVID’s ongoing destruction. Just as the final chords rang gentle in the night air, the voice of a bartender from Ascend’s food row rang across the field “No More Alcohol!!!” providing the escape from reverie that I needed.
Immediately thereafter, the orchestra thundered into the famous fate motive—short, short, short, LONG! This terrifying motive, the seed of the rest of the movement and the basis of motives throughout the symphony, cemented the chill in my spine. As the subject slowly dug his way out of this oppressive C minor into the light of a C major galaxy, I felt a charge of excitement. There will be another vaccine, maybe our diplomacy will work this time. Geez that ambulance was loud and did I see Jun Iwasaki and Erin Hall chuckle at it as they attacked Beethoven’s score with a Joie de vivre? Music City will survive, their biggest band is back, and most importantly, their, no, our next concert will be held safely within the confines of the Schermerhorn! The Nashville Symphony returns next weekend, September 16-18 at the Schermerhorn with the “Fanfare for Music City.” Tickets available here.