Nashville Symphony Ends its Season

Romanticism, Expressionism and Primitivism at the Schermerhorn

From May 30 to June 2 the Nashville Symphony ended its season with a presentation of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in a rather strange pairing with two rarely heard song sets: Alban Berg’s collection: Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs) and Gustav Mahler’s cycle: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer).

Soprano Meechot Marrero (Photo: Edwin David Cordero)

Alban Berg’s Lieder were written in 1928 and dedicated to his wife Helene. The songs reflect a composer at the intersection of several trends of influence as he embarks into the dark German Expressionist period. The first, “Nacht,” with its whole tone organization seems to reach to the work of the Impressionists (Debussy in particular) even as the alternating chords on eighth notes reach further back to Mussorgsky’s cycle Sunless. And yet, its sound is the most modernist of the set. Nashville’s strings proved decidedly eloquent in the divided parts of “Die Nachtigall” while the reed section wonderfully articulated the ironic indoor pastorale of “Im Zimmer.” Soprano Meechot Marrero approached the set warmly, with a gentle embrace that enhanced the chilling effect of Berg’s dark expressionism. One of my favorite moments was in the “Shilflied,” with its description of a return to the site of a drowning (a topic that Berg also treated in his masterpiece Wozzeck ). Marrero’s performance was particularly–and wonderfully—frightening: “And I think that I hear wafting the gentle sound of your voice, and down into the pond sinks your lovely song.”

Since May of 2010, Maestro Guerrero has managed to produce eight of Mahler’s ten symphonies including Das Lied von Erde. Next spring he will be closing his tenure here with the 8th “Symphony of a Thousand,” leaving only the 6th unperformed. One wonders why, or if he might be coerced to return to complete the cycle? In anycase, he obviously adores the Austrian composer, this relish was tangible in the performance of Leider eines feharenden Gesellen, a song cycle that is symphonic in its orchestration and shares a number of important themes with the composer’s First Symphony. These songs are authentically Romantic, celebrating nature, grieving lost love and generally experiencing the world with extreme pathos.

Baritone Sidney Outlaw, appropriately, took a much more direct approach with these Romantic works. His instrument was rich and slightly burnished with precise intonation and an excellent diction. Particularly in the last song, Guerrero’s pacing permitted Mahler’s sad nostalgia to saturate the hall, as the music, poetry and song drifted into a dream. I did lament the absence of the contrasting klezmer music that accompanies this song’s theme in the First Symphony.

Bariton Sidney Outlaw (Photo Hai Tran)

After intermission, the program moved from music denounced by the government of Nazi Germany to music that it celebrated. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a cantata, part of a triptych of pieces that draws on a 12th century medieval collection of Goliard songs. These works were written by students and clergy to satirize the Catholic church and the greed created in the newly monetized economy of the era. Orff’s setting places these originally rather light pieces (the songs are a collection of drinking songs, gaming songs, love songs and moral mockery) in the context of a full orchestral accompaniment with full choir provides the pieces a gravitas that, in my opinion, outweighs the expressive purpose of the original lyrics. For example, “O Fortuna,” the most famous piece in the set simply laments the singer’s losses at the gambling.  It has been used in hundreds of advertisements, setting the mood for dramatic, catastrophic events (or parodies thereof).

The cantata’s performance has long been controversial, not so much for its direct expression of Nazi ideals, although it does express a neo-pagan ideology and the perception of a timeless, ethnic character, but instead for a primitivism Orff likely drew from the aesthetic of Stravinsky’s early ballets (especially the Sacre du Printemps). These works feature repeated rhythmic cells that serve to excite “the collective” and lead to, as T. Adorno famously put it, “liquidation of the individual.” The difference is that Stravinsky’s music is meant to be terrifying.  On the other hand, Orff’s music as Alex Ross once put it, seeks to create a “…rousing primitive, unreflective enthusiasm.” It raises not horror, but excitement. Ross, and later Richard Taruskin, recognized that in this way, Orff’s music is rather uniquely powerful for propaganda. As Taruskin famously stated about Carmina Burana in the New York Times: “Repeat anything often enough, Dr. Goebbels said, and it becomes the truth.” Obviously, this is a lesson that is well taken in our modern politics.

In Nashville, the performance was exemplary. Tucker Biddlecombe’s chorus was perfectly prepared, responding well to Maestro Guerrero’s directions and still seeming to lose themselves in the performance.  Mary Biddlecombe’s youth choir was just as fantastic and the two combined to create a compelling rendition. The soloists delivered as well, with counter tenor Randall Scotting, the evening’s roasted swan, providing everyone an excellent and humorous victim to laugh at. The closing “O Fortuna” was rousing enough that the audience leapt to their feet, and a young fellow near me literally jumped with his hands extended above his head as if someone had scored a touchdown. I’m a curmudgeon, but I am always intimidated by unreflective enthusiasm, especially with an election approaching. My wife, on the other hand, saw it differently: “That was fun!” Whether you like Orff’s work or not, the evening was simply an all-around a great performance.

2 Comments to Romanticism, Expressionism and Primitivism at the Schermerhorn

    • Hey Stephen! That’s just a little before my time. I was going by the archive listed here: where it says Mahler 5 was performed in 2009/10. Is it a typo, or is the concert with Mahler’s 6th just not listed? BTW, Thanks for reading!!!

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