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'Symphony of a Thousand' pushes Nashville Symphony to its limits

Giancarlo Guerrero
The Tennessean

By Will Ayers

The Nashville Symphony will start its 65th season with a behemoth that will stretch the very stage of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center to its limits.

Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony, called the "Symphony of a Thousand" for the battalion of musicians the performance requires (the actual figure will be closer to 450), will be the Nashville Symphony's most ambitious musical undertaking to date when it opens the 2010-11 season in September.

Symphony officials believe this will almost certainly be the first time the piece is performed in Tennessee.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for all of us," said Giancarlo Guerrero, who is entering his second year as the symphony's music director. "This is a piece that doesn't come around very often."

Mahler will end the season, too. The famously emotive composer's Second Symphony will be the closing explosion in a long salvo of musical fireworks that includes internationally acclaimed guest soloists such as pianist André Watts and cellist Steven Isserlis; storied jazz and pops performers including saxophonist David Sanborn, Jewel, Michael McDonald and Chicago's Peter Cetera; and special events such as a concert by the oft-awarded Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

"It's an awesome season," said Alan Valentine, the symphony's president and CEO. "It's no-holds-barred, just pulling out all the stops."

Guerrero diversifies

In recent years, the symphony's programming has heavily favored American music, but this season Guerrero is including more music from the European halls of fame.

"Let's face it, there are many pieces that are so popular that sometimes people tend to think of them as 'lite classical,' and they avoid them, but I am somebody who believes those pieces, more than anything, deserve to be played more often," he said.

But he quickly added that new American music is still as vital as oxygen for the Nashville Symphony. This season, two composers with Nashville connections will have new works performed: Conni Ellisor, a current resident, and Daniel Bernard Roumain, a Haitian-American composer who studied at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music.

Violinist Robert McDuffie will play a new Philip Glass violin concerto, "The American Four Seasons," and in March 2011, a piece by Joan Tower, the American composer whose music won the symphony three Grammys in 2008, will be performed.

Guerrero's goal to mix old and new will bring about some unorthodox programs. For example, a December concert will feature Bach, Dvorak, Elgar and modern English composer John Tavener.

"(It) really shows you how much symphonic music has grown, not only in the sheer size of orchestra, but the requirements of the musicians," Guerrero said. "Elgar would be the first one to tell you it all started with Bach."

There are theme concerts as well: Around Oktoberfest, look for a Teutonic celebration of Wagner, Richard Strauss and Brahms, and in January 2011, there's a wintry bill of Scandinavian music featuring Nielsen and Sibelius.

Symphony forges ahead

The scope of the season — especially considering Mahler's Eighth, which has a budget of more than $100,000 for its two-night run — is bold, coming after a year when the symphony cut nine staff positions and sliced $3 million from its budget. The symphony's endowment still shows heavy losses, and debt obligations for the $123.5 million Schermerhorn loom.

"Our view is that the best possible way for us to not only survive the recession, but thrive past it, is to continue making great art, making great music at the highest level, because that's what's going to beget support from the community," Valentine said. "It will sell tickets and it will cause people to be interested in supporting us, because people like to support exciting endeavors."

All this comes as the symphony is searching for a new concertmaster to replace Mary Kathryn VanOsdale, who announced in December that she would step down from the leadership post but remain with the orchestra. Guerrero said the symphony will likely audition candidates throughout the fall.

The symphony has four recording projects in the pipeline: discs of music by tango champion Astor Piazzolla, decorated American composer Richard Danielpour, Roberto Sierra of Puerto Rico and Joseph Schwantner, a Pulitzer Prize winner. The orchestra already is nominated for a Grammy for Best Classical Album for this year's Jan. 31 awards for a recording on the Naxos label of French composer Maurice Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells) and Sheherazade.

The concertmaster search and recording docket would normally be enough to busy any orchestra, but even now, the pressure is building for the Symphony of a Thousand.

The Schermerhorn's concert hall was designed with this very piece of music in mind, so there are risers built into the stage structure that expand the choir loft, as well as a special mechanism that will lift part of the main floor to extend the stage about 10 feet out into the audience. Moveable seating, another of the hall's tricks, makes all this possible without having to alter the building.

"It's sort of like finishing the test drive of a concert hall, testing its limits and taking advantage of all that it enables us to do," Valentine said.

Choir auditions are beginning this month, said Nashville Symphony Chorus director George Mabry, who has the Herculean task of assembling the ensemble.

"Any project of this kind of immensity is always a little scary and a little exciting at the same time," he said, "(but) the point is that we will do it, and we'll do it really well."