Symphony’s festival is summer treat

06.06.09
Orli Shaham
Tennessean

A glass of wine, a fresh salad and the Nashville Symphony playing beautiful music right in front of you. What a lovely way to spend a summer evening.

The symphony's First Tennessee Summer Festival kicked off Friday with a concert program featuring Jennifer Higdon's Loco, Robert Schumann's Concerto for Piano in A minor, Op. 54 and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, Op. 35.

Seating for the festival includes tables on the orchestra level of Laura Turner Concert Hall. On Friday, those tables were filled with folks enjoying good food, companionship and enjoyable selections under the baton of incoming music director Giancarlo Guerrero.

The start of the program featured a nine-minute piece by the Brooklyn-born Higdon commissioned in 2004 by the Chicago Symphony. Its summer performances in Rivinia Park contend with trains that regularly run through there, and so works were commissioned with locomotives in mind.

While Loco in this instance is an abbreviation of the word locomotive, Guerrero told the audience he had talked with the composer and that Higdon told him she was thinking about a "crazy train" when she wrote it - loco being the Spanish word for crazy.

The piece indeed has a frenzy to it that conjures that idea. One can imagine a large diesel engine motoring down the tracks at an ever-faster pace as its electric horn blasts over and over at multiple crossings. The percussion, strings and winds particularly play a large role in creating this image with quick, repetitive motives. It's a light, fun way to start the evening, an appetizer before the main course.

That main course comes with Schumann's Piano Concerto. Orli Shaham on piano leads this lovely three-movement work with great care.

Shaham caresses the keys, and her affection is returned by the sublime sounds that come from the symphony's Steinway. When she plays, it's very moving and very personal. The emotional truth of her artistry is balanced with strong technical abilities, as evidenced among other moments by her handling of the difficult syncopated rhythm that is part of the Allegro vivace finale.

The long ovation Shaham received Friday included two returns to the stage for well-deserved applause and multiple cries of "Bravo!" from an audience that understood and appreciated all she'd done during a shimmering half-hour performance.

Symphony musicians don't have as large a role in this piece as they might in some other classical piano concertos - for example, there's no orchestral exposition in the opening of the Allegro affetuoso that begins the composition. They do make the most of what they have, though, including strings, wind and cellos that join in so sweetly during the Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso second movement.

After intermission, the familiar, hauntingly graceful violin solo of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade ushered in a sparkling end to the evening. That solo was handled wonderfully by Concertmaster Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, one of several gorgeous contributions from various players that made this more than three-quarters-of-an-hour length work waft by.

This four-part suite was inspired by the Arabian Nights tales that have fascinated people around the world for centuries. It conjures up an Eastern flavor with its various melodies and solos. Some of the best solos come during The Tale of Prince Kalendar, the second movement, where symphony bassoon, oboe, flute and horn players acquit themselves well.

Tying all of this together is the power, passion and poise of Guerrero. His energy is infectious, for both the musicians and the audience.

Nashville Symphony certainly knows how to celebrate a season. Their music, like the food and wine offered at their Summer Festival, goes down well.