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Amid Grammy anticipation, the Nashville Symphony soars with a program rich in human voices

Giancarlo Guerrero
Nashville Scene

By Russell Johnston

In the wake of a Grammy nomination last week, the Nashville Symphony closed its fall classical series with perhaps the most contemplative program of its season so far. Guest vocal soloists appeared in a pair of works based on poems of Edgar Allan Poe—Rachmaninoff's choral symphony The Bells and Dominick Argento's Le Tombeau d'Edgar Poe—and the Nashville Symphony Chorus joined the orchestra for both the Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms.

The NSO's Naxos recording of Ravel's colorful opera L'Enfant et les sortilèges and his song cycle Shéhérazade is on the slate for Best Classical Album, the Recording Academy announced Dec. 2. This makes the orchestra's eighth Grammy nomination of the decade, including the three awards given in February for its CD of music by Joan Tower.

Those three awards and the current nomination came to recordings from the symphony's period between music directors, which says much about the caliber of musicians now working under Giancarlo Guerrero's baton. As last Thursday's performance showed, the orchestra's polish is only increasing as the new conductor settles into his role.

This polish came in handy in the Symphony of Psalms. The work is not overtly virtuosic, but Stravinsky demands tight coordination between chorus and orchestra, so Guerrero kept his beat emphatic throughout, yielding an extremely satisfying reading. For instance, when the third movement calls on voices, timpani and two pianos to maintain a slow rhythm together, any imprecision would be blatantly obvious. The NSO's performance of this wonderful passage was highly precise but still seemed to breathe organically, never becoming mechanical.

Stravinsky's unusual orchestration came across effectively. The large flute section especially shone with a remarkably mellow sound in the contrapuntal second movement, and various combinations of brass and the low strings blended perfectly to suggest the sound of an organ with the choir.

Dominick Argento is known largely for his operatic compositions, and his 1985 Le Tombeau d'Edgar Poe arranges material drawn from his opera about Poe. This would be hard to guess, however, since the piece feels thoroughly orchestral in conception, and the composer actually calls for the tenor soloist to be placed just offstage.

The effect was of an orchestra occasionally thinking out loud when Bryan Griffin sang stanzas of Poe's "Annabel Lee" between vivid and hallucinatory orchestral depictions of the sea's chaos and the tomb's mystery. Though the offstage vocals had a distant sound, Griffin projected well, and the instruments only risked drowning him out during the dramatically appropriate moment describing wind rising to strike down the poet's love.

Argento makes full use of his orchestra, giving the players a lot to dig into. A full battery of percussionists created sparkling textures, beautifully played trumpet and flute solos picked up the lyrical themes near the work's close, and the trombone section spoke like a single instrument at the third section's climax.

The Rachmaninoff, too, exhibited a wide range of color. The score picks up Poe's famous onomatopoeia by imitating bells throughout, often more subtly than by simply injecting percussion. The NSO's transparent sound was ideal for Rachmaninoff's wide-spaced chords, and Guerrero's tempos conveyed a sense of bell-like oscillation in many passages.

The powerful chorus was joined by Griffin, soprano Twyla Robinson and bass-baritone Darren Stokes as soloists, who all gave strong performances and worked well with the orchestra. Stokes' rich voice was particularly suited to the chilling Mahlerian finale, where he declaimed the triumph of death after a wistful English horn solo.

The concert had a pleasingly unified feel despite the wide stylistic gulf between Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff. This program was hardly a safe feel-good smash—it didn't fall back on dazzling fingerwork or upbeat finales, and the Poe texts were hardly cheery. If the crowd's reaction seemed a little on the subdued side, that was in keeping with the music's largely introspective character.

Guerrero's choices to showcase the well-rehearsed chorus were masterworks but not over-familiar—it was a real treat to hear the Symphony of Psalms played and sung so well—and he continues to feature recent American music prominently alongside standard repertoire, an encouraging trend. Here's hoping the power and success of this performance is an auspicious omen for next month's Grammy Awards presentation.