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Giancarlo Guerrero

Rambling About Tanglewood: Beethoven by way of Nashville

By Andrew L. Pincus
The Berkshire Eagle

It’s not called Music City for nothing.

The Country Music Hall of Fame is two blocks away. Also within easy walking distance are rock and pop venues. The town also boasts gospel and jazz. The Nashville Predators and Tennessee Titans hockey and football teams play nearby.

And after a Nashville Symphony concert, says music director Giancarlo Guerrero, “All come out at night, this whole configuration of different tastes and people. That’s what gives Nashville its energy. We don’t take away from each other. If anything, we influence each other.”

Guerrero, who is winding up a two-week stay at Tanglewood, is an unashamed booster of Music City, which installed him at its Schermerhorn Symphony Center in 2009. He’s “blessed” to be in Nashville and share in its wide-open musical life, he says.

“It’s a city that really appreciates and champions and celebrates music in every imaginable genre. Particularly though, it’s really more about American music. I mean, Nashville is all about the American genres — country, bluegrass, rock and roll, jazz, you know, gospel and classical music. And I think that the quantity and quality of music-making is quite remarkable.”

Guerrero spoke as he was preparing to conduct the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in its final concert last Sunday and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in its finale — the customary Beethoven Ninth — this Sunday. The BSO program opens with Schoenberg’s brief “Friede auf Erden” (“Peace on Earth”) and features the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Guerrero, 50, bushy-haired and voluble, was born into a poor family in Nicaragua but, at 11, emigrated with the family to Costa Rica when civil war broke out between the Somoza and Sandinista forces. He once dodged bullets underneath a car for two hours until help came. He knew nothing about classical music until a sympathetic teacher in Costa Rica, recognizing talent, bent the rules and started him on percussion.

In a talk last June to the League of American Orchestras, he recalled entering Baylor University as a freshman percussion major. Baylor, he said, took an “amazing leap of faith” in admitting him and other Costa Ricans before him.

“But while they may have seen possibilities in me, I had no clue what I was looking at when I showed up on my first day. I had seen music videos on MTV, and the Challenger explosion on CNN, but going from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Waco, Texas, was like going from Earth to Pluto.”

Despite “very limited” English, he was placed in the marching band. He’d never been on a football field before.

“They would tell the drumline to go to the 20-yard line, and I was like – `where’?” At the beginning, “I kept running into the tubas and piccolos, but eventually I figured it out … and I even became a football fan.”

Serge Koussevitzky, the BSO’s legendary conductor from 1924 to 1949, is a hero and model for this adopted Tennessean.

“Listen,” he says, “this was a man that was unfailing in his support for the composers of his time.” He was not the “best-equipped technical conductor” to lead some of those difficult pieces, yet he paid out of his own pocket to commission and publish many such pieces, like Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and the BSO premiered them.

And that, Guerrero proudly points out, is why the Nashville Symphony has won six Grammys for its recordings of contemporary American music. The Grammy winners include a performance of Michael Daugherty’s “Tales of Hemingway” and Terry Riley’s “Palmian Chord Ryddle.” During the coming season, the legacy will continue with recordings of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Symphony No. 4 and Christopher Rouse’s Concerto for Orchestra.

It doesn’t pay to “hide” new music by just playing a token short piece now and then, Guerrero says. For an orchestra, that means “we don’t believe in it, either.”

To help make contemporary music more appealing, he says, his orchestra engages popular artists such as banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist Victor Wooten — Guerrero is always looking for opportunities to hang out with such musicians — and has composers give preconcert talks about works of theirs to be performed. Attendance per concert averages 85 percent of capacity over a 44-week season in which individual programs might be given three or four times, he says.

“As much as I love to perform Rachmaninoff and Mahler and Stravinsky and Brahms, we have to celebrate the music that is happening now. And more so, this is a reflection of what’s happening in Nashville in the 21st century, and we’re very, very proud to be a part of that.”

It’s also a great honor to be closing the Tanglewood season with the Beethoven Ninth, he says.

“It’s not only a fabulous piece but the message is one that I think now, more than ever in the world, we need to remind ourselves [of].” That message: The divine spark of joy makes all peoples one.

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