By Joseph E. Morgan
On a rainy October 3rd 2015 the Nashville Symphony Orchestra gave a concert that presented some of the most Romantic and intense works in the orchestral repertoire, including Sergei Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (Op. 29), Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor for Piano and Orchestra (Op. 23) and Felix Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony 4 in A major (Op. 90), “The Italian.” The program’s weighty focus on Romantic works was partially a result of circumstance. Jonathan Leshnoff’s Concerto for Guitar was originally slated but due to an injury sustained by the soloist the NSO substituted the Mendelssohn. One expects that this, or the rain, was the reason for the many empty seats in the hall. This is a shame because it was a wonderful concert.
Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead was written in 1908 after Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name which the composer had seen in a black and white reproduction in Paris. The painting features a Charon-like figure accompanying a coffin to a desolate island in a small boat. The island is forested with cypress trees (symbols of mortality) and surrounded by a rocky cliff pocked with tombs. Rachmaninoff’s work adopts this painting’s narrative. The foundation of his music is a subtle and repeating stepwise figure that seems to depict the boat gently pressing against the current. The piece slowly builds into a climax from which emerges the old Roman Catholic chant for the dead, “dies irae.” In their performance, one could tell Maestro Guerrero and the NSO thrives performing these kinds of works. He brought Rachmaninoff’s dark yet lush orchestration into ever sharper relief in wave after wave of crescendo.
Rachmaninoff’s dark poem was well contrasted by the bright and airy soundscape of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony which the composer began as he embarked on a trip to Italy in 1830. Mendelssohn’s Romanticism is given here in exoticism, depicting his encounter of the Italian folk within the context of what he saw as their natural surroundings. This perception can also be seen in a watercolor View of Florence that painted during the same trip. In the painting, the city is framed by trees and centered by the great cathedral, as if it were emerging from the landscape around it. In his symphony, the trees are replaced by the sounds of a stylized dance with which it begins and ends. The NSO’s woodwinds, the flutes in particular, deserve special note for their lively rendition of these stylized dances. For me however, the highlight of the piece on Saturday was the second movement, in which the depiction of a solemn procession (Hector Berlioz characterized it as a “pilgrim’s march”) was given with great subtlety by the NSO’s reeds (clarinet, oboe) against a grave yet musical walking bass. This Andante centered Mendelssohn’s Symphony just as the Cathedral does his painting.
At intermission I was concerned. After these two intensely romantic pieces, I thought the Tchaikovsky Piano concerto wouldn’t be able to stand up. After all, the work is such a chestnut and the themes so recognizable that it was even famously parodied by Victor Borge and the Muppets. However, Joyce Yang brought a freshness to her interpretation that injected a youthful exuberance to one of the most frequently performed concertos in the canon. From the grand opening chords to the recurring Ukrainian folk theme in its final movement, Yang’s interpretation was unremittingly passionate, riveting the audience to her every gesture. At the end, after several rounds of ovation, Maestro Guerrero managed to convince Yang to return to the piano for an encore. For this she performed Alberto Ginastera’s character piece Danza de la moza donosa (Dance of the Beautiful Maiden, 1937). Ginastera’s piece is an intimate portrait of 20th century Argentine nationalism. To hear this objective portrait of a national character after all the idealism of the romantic works heard earlier was like being gently stirred from a lucid dream. After the concert, as the audience spilled out into the cool autumn air and with the rain having finally stopped, I felt a sense of renewal in myself and those around me, coupled with sympathy for those who missed this wonderful evening.