Words by Joseph Morgan
On May 18th and 19th, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra held its most eclectic concert of the season. Featuring works by contemporary composers Christopher Rouse (Ogoun Badagris for Percussion Ensemble), and Enrico Chapela (Magnetar, Concerto for Electric Cello) as well as works by the more canonic composers Aaron Copland (Symphony for Organ and Orchestra) and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 33), the evening showcased the orchestra’s virtuosity and versatility.
According to Rouse, Ogoun Badagris is “one of the most terrible and violent of all Voodoo loa [deities, who] can be appeased only by human blood sacrifice,” and his piece “may be interpreted as a dance of appeasement.” Thus the work is very rhythmic and follows the form of a Voodoo ritual, including a “brutal sexual ceremonial dance […] succeeded by demonic possession.” In all the congas were the most outstanding timbre of a very exciting piece.
The second piece of the evening was Tchaikovsky’s famous Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra. This was performed by German-Canadian virtuoso Johannes Moser who was also featured on the piece for the electric cello that followed. For Tchaikovsky’s work, Moser was in fine form, working together with Nashville’s great string section in dialogue and at times in competition. He employed a welcome light touch in the 6th variation with the flute, revealing not only Mozartean inspiration but also a Mendelssohnian lightness of touch.
After intermission, Moser returned with an electric cello that was run through an effects processor on a laptop on the other side of Maestro Guerrero’s podium. The title, Magnetar, comes from the “transformation of the strings kinetic energy into electromagnetic energy that can be manipulated in numerous ways before being reconverted into sound.” Reaching from the sound of fierce heavy metal to timbre and texture-based atmospheres, that piece was remarkable for its Avant-guard nature. Indeed, the instrument sounded more like a distorted guitar than a cello and featured more grooves and riffs than harmony and melody.
The final work, Copland’s rarely heard Symphony for Organ and Orchestra was magnificent. Written in 1925, early in his career and premiered with his teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Organ, the work is in three movements each progressively longer than the last. He emphasized the role of the organ as an integral part of the orchestra. My favorite movement was the third for its contrapuntal innovation and elaborate motto. This was the modernist Copland, and it made me wonder what might have happened had he not created the American Sound and continued in this direction. In all, it was a very eclectic concert but an overall success—a breath of fresh air from the traditional and seemingly obligatory Symphony, Concerto, Overture concert format.