The Nashville Symphony:

A Cold War Duel at the Schermerhorn

On November 2-4, 2023, the Nashville Symphony presented an intriguing concert titled “Corea’s Concerto + Romeo & Juliet” at the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall. The soloist performing Chick Corea’s Concerto for Trombone was the internationally renowned trombonist Joseph Alessi, for whom the piece was written. It was premiered in 2021 by Alessi, with Maestro Guerrero and Brasil’s Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo just months after the composer had passed away. I was at the Thursday performance with an audience chock-full of local music educators (they were recognized at the opening) and an equally large number of local trombonists delighting in their champion.

The evening began with Karol Szymanowski’s Concert Overture, Opus 12. A Polish composer on the cutting edge of the progressive musical movement in Poland in the late 19th Century, Szymanowski’s Overture describes the story of Wlast the Hero as told by Szymanowski’s poet friend Micinski and is heartily derivative of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. In preparation for the concert, I spent some time with the performance (also led by Guerrero) by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic which is available on youtube. Theirs is a great rendition, certainly, but I just feel that Nashville’s strings (even without their new concert master) were more impassioned, and the horns more heroic—my, how spoiled we are in the Music City! In anycase, against the other two pieces of the evening, Szymanowski’s work simply felt like a warmup.

Further, Prokofiev’s Suite to the ballet Romeo and Juliet, juxtaposed with Corea’s Concerto made for an interesting comparison, a cold war duel if you will, between the two schools. Prokofiev’s work is the height of Russian music in the 20th Century. It is serious, unified, powerfully expressive, and direct. On the other hand, Corea’s work is much more diverse and Western in terms of influence; the first movement alone is an amalgamation of the chaotic beauty that is the melting-pot of Manhattan. Like the suites of the Baroque era, the juxtaposition of these two works provided a wonderful collocation of contrasting expressions in stylistic diversity and convention—bravo to Guerrero for programming them.

Joseph Alessi

Alessi, for his part, was phenomenal. His relaxed way of beginning the concert made me wonder, at first, if he was simply warming up. But his tone, my God! the tone was chin dropping. Perfectly even throughout the registers, finitely measured dynamics, a frisson-inducing vibrato and a warmth akin to the sun at the golden hour, I understood immediately Corea’s decision to begin his (Alessi’s) concerto with the soloist exposed. But it wasn’t just the tone, as we took the “Stroll” with Alessi through Manhattan and all the music of its place, his abilities at the various styles characteristic of his instrument were laid bare—jazz, classical, lyrical and tango, found themselves feisty, happy, melancholy, and virtuosic. Corea drew the map and Alessi led the tour. One does wonder at the final movement’s revision, apparently Corea’s first version ended quietly, but Alessi sent it back with a request for more virtuosity. For the rest of my life, when I meet a trombonist, this will be the performance I bring up (much to my new friend’s annoyance, I am sure!) Thank goodness it was recorded, I expect there will be another Grammy award in the offing.

The evening ended with the Prokofiev and it was outstanding. From the braggadocio opening of the Montagues and Capulets, to the emotionally riveting scene in the crypt I marveled at the power of the expression, despite its excursion through so many disciplines—History (Renaissance Italy) told through an impassioned story by a master of drama and literature (Shakespeare) abstracted from this canonic text and into a dance (the Ballet) whose music is then taken, piecemeal, to create a number of scenes performed without their visual or literary aspect. That it works at all is a wonder, that it is a masterpiece is just puzzling, but being a Shakespeare fan, I believe it all goes back to the greatness of the original story. In any case, this weekend at OzArts you can see a hip-hop version Rome & Jewels and next April the Nashville Ballet will be performing Romeo and Juliet with the Nashville Symphony so you can hear it again! In the meantime, the Nashville Symphony will return on November 17th and 18th with its performance of Copland, Piazzolla, and Estévez. What a wonderful time to be in the Music City!

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