The Nashville Symphony
Fanfare for Music City
They are back.
The Nashville Symphony has returned home to the Schermerhorn Symphony center. Some things have changed: masks are ubiquitous, physical programs are replaced by digital counterparts, and the fantastic preconcert lectures from Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero are now presented on YouTube. Back in March 2020, to the shock of many, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra was the first U.S. orchestra to completely shut down the rest of their season. As the pandemic progressed many orchestras quickly followed suit. Eighteen months later they have returned with a cautious season mapped out ahead.
The arc of the 21-22 Nashville Symphony season is growth both musically and instrumentally. Towards the beginning of the season, like this weekend’s concerts, the orchestra presents small chamber groups and pieces that generally require less performers. Heading into 2022 the orchestra expands to a regular size and eventually will present Stravinsky’s Firebird with the Nashville Ballet. The season wraps up in June with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which is coincidentally the last piece I saw Maestro Guerrero conduct live in 2019 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood.
Walking towards the Schermerhorn last night, I was truly excited. It had been a long time since I had heard a live symphony orchestra. The program that night, billed as a “Fanfare for Music City,” served as a great potpourri of the different instrumental sections of the orchestra:
Aaron Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man
Joan Tower – Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1
Antonin Dvorák – Serenade in D Minor for Winds
Jessie Montgomery – Strum
Franz Schubert – Symphony in B Minor, “Unfinished”
My thoughts about the concert were interrupted walking on Broadway by the noise of honky-tonks and a man on a Segway with a large snake wrapped around his neck (only in Nashville!). Just outside the doors of the Schermerhorn I flashed my vaccination card and received a paper wrist bracelet that allowed me inside. Inside the Laura Turner Concert Hall, I was surprised to find it mostly empty. My brother and I were the only people in our row or the row in front of us. As the concert started CEO Alan Valentine walked to the stage and welcomed everyone back to the Schermerhorn. He thanked donors, corporate sponsors, ticket buyers, and the musicians for making this season a possibility. As Vanlentine left the stage the brass tuned to begin the Copland.
Maestro Guerrero walked onto the stage and with very little hesitation and gave the massive downbeat that begins the Fanfare for the Common Man. Upon hearing the percussive resonance throughout Laura Turner Concert Hall, I was reminded of just how many fantastic concerts I had heard in that room. Restarting the season with a quite literal bang seemed like the right way to begin. The brass and percussion throughout the Copland and Tower really sparkled. Maestro Guerrero’s conducting was strong and showcased the pomp that comes with both pieces. The history behind Copland’s fanfare seemed to overshadow the lesser-known Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. This may just be an unfortunate side-effect of linking the pieces so closely together. The Fanfare for the Common Woman is an exceptionally fine piece in its’ own right and the Nashville Symphony has done a tremendous amount to champion Joan Tower’s music with multiple recordings that have been nominated for a Grammy and even won one.
These two pieces totaled barely six minutes and then Guerrero turned to address the audience. Showing a bit of emotion, he welcomed the audience back home and thanked them for the support they showed during the course of this pandemic. It was a moving moment for all, and the audience replied with some of the largest cheers of the whole evening. As Guerrero gave a bit of backstory behind the two fanfares the ensemble for the Dvorák Wind Serenade entered the stage. The Wind Serenade in D Minor is a miniature quasi symphony. The piece is in four movements with a march, minuet, andante, and a rousing polka. Interestingly, it is scored for double oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and three horns. In a later revision Dvorák added a cello, double bass, and contrabassoon.
Whereas the opening Fanfares featured the brass sections as a united whole, the Wind Serenade did much to highlight individual instruments. Particular kudos goes to principal oboe Titus Underwood whose flexibility and versatility was highlighted constantly in the score. What particularly stuck out to me during the Dvorák was the amazing blend of the ensemble. Dvorák’s great orchestration helps of course, but an inattentive ensemble can steamroll that. This was not the case here. As melodies and themes moved around the ensemble the group was able to respond and allow their colleagues to sing through. This is true chamber music, a rare treat to hear it in the Schermerhorn. Maestro Guerrero was at ease leading this intimate music, though still kept the intensity throughout.
Maestro Guerrero was at ease leading this intimate music
Before Jessie Montgomery’s Strum Guerrero turned and addressed the audience further about his fondness for the piece. It was great to hear the Music Director speak while the stage was being rearranged for the new piece. I always enjoy the concert more if the Music Director addresses the audience verbally. This allows them to share their
passion and excitement with the audience instead of just walking to the podium and turning their back to the audience to conduct. Strum was an unknown piece to me, and I was looking forward to hearing the work live. Jessie Montgomery’s work has been increasingly showcased throughout performing arts ensembles recently, and for good reason. Her music is fresh and exciting. It is fun to hear and the players have fun playing it. And frankly, it was nice to have something written this century on the program. With the strings spaced out across the expanded stage some timing issues presented themselves but overall, this piece was the highlight of the concert for me. Beginning with a strumming viola this piece has everything one could want from soaring violin melodies to furious energy throughout. At seven minutes long it is the perfect length, Jessie did not stretch the musical material further than it could go. In the preconcert lecture Giancarlo mentioned that this piece has become a personal favorite of his and he plans to take it around the world with him as he guest conducts this year.
Last on the program was Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8. Being the ‘warhorse’ on the program my expectations were high. The program had been building the orchestra slowly section by section and now was the moment to hear the full ensemble. There were a few balancing issues as they shook off the rust of 18 months apart, but very quickly the ensemble settled together, and the Nashville Symphony was back in all of its glory. This is truly one of the gems of the orchestral repertoire and the ensemble executed it to near-perfection. Sudden loud outbursts were electrifying. Nervous tremolos in the violins heightened the tension. Schubert’s melodic gift was on full display. In introducing the piece Giancarlo mentioned that he programed this piece solely because of the title “Unfinished.” He spoke about how in the past two years we have had many projects, events, and concerts that were left unfinished. With the conclusion of this opening concert, I doubt this season will be left unfinished.
Overall, this was a strong opening weekend for the group. In the future I hope that the Nashville Symphony continues to refine their online presence. (Even with the re-introduction of live concerts, online content will not disappear.) The quality of playing is world class and if you have been missing live orchestral music then I invite you to check out their remaining performances this weekend. If you would like to welcome the Nashville Symphony back home, then you have two more chances on Friday the 17th and Saturday the 18th. You can find tickets here. Before attending please be aware of the Nashville Symphony’s new Health and Safety Plan that you can find here.