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Slatkin closes out symphony season with a 'Fantastique' magnifique

Joseph Kalichstein
The Tennessean

Pianist Kalichstein plays refined Mozart

The ensemble began the final weekend of its 2007-08 SunTrust Classical Series with the world premiere of a newly orchestrated work, "Emblems," which Aaron Copland originally composed for symphonic band.

The orchestration, by the Nashville Symphony's principal librarian, D. Wilson Ochoa, left hardly a trace of the piece's band origins and made full use of a robust string sound that was often paired in call-and-response relationships with thick brass and wind chords. Despite many rhythmically challenging passages, the ensemble navigated them with confidence and precision.

The energetic and brassy conclusion of "Emblems" made for a sharp contrast with guest pianist Joseph Kalichstein's rendering of Mozart's final piano concerto. Delicate and refined, the subtle beauty of his solo piano begged listeners to lean in and listen more closely. The piece is not one of Mozart's more extroverted or flashy compositions; it requires patience and finesse to make its fragile, simple melodies sing. Kalichstein filled his playing with this sort of sensitivity, particularly evident in his artful use of rubato.

Although the orchestra had many delicate moments of its own, the players at times struggled to match Kalichstein's nuance and technical precision. Despite the reduced ensemble, they often sounded thicker and more of a presence than was necessary. If they played with confidence and liveliness during the rest of the evening, they felt somewhat less comfortable and responsive here.

The second half of the performance consisted entirely of the Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz's tormented and lovesick foray into the symphony genre. The orchestra reacted to Slatkin's animated conducting with a great deal of enthusiasm and vitality. The sensitivity to dynamic contrasts was striking, as were the tight ensemble and attention to balance among different sections of the orchestra. Even during the work's most raucous and emotionally belligerent passages, the players didn't sacrifice this precision.

The mounting excitement and diabolical energy of the final moments of the closing movement, "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath," filled every corner of the hall with a powerful, imposing sound. There were countless moments during Fantastique when the orchestra sounded at its best, not in small part due to Slatkin, who is finishing his penultimate year as music adviser with the Nashville Symphony.

The performance punctuated a strong season for the symphony and the impressive strides it has made in recent years.