Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nashville Symphony: Sierra: Sinfonia No. 4: world premiere.(ConcertsEverywhere).

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A world premiere by composer Roberto Sierra, old chestnuts from Mozart and Ravel, and a less familiar Shostakovich cello concerto with rising star Alisa Weilerstein: it wasn't immediately clear whether this would amount to a potpourri or a hodgepodge. The Nashville Symphony's new Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero cited the programming as an example of his eclectic taste; the stylistic juxtapositions turned out to be more harmonious than jarring.

Composer Roberto Sierra, active since the late 1980s, lately has gained currency with his Fandangos (2000) and his 2006 Missa Latina. His Sinfonia No. 4 was commissioned at the NSO's suggestion by the Sphinx Consortium of 12 orchestras. Eight US orchestras will perform the work this season, and Guerrero will conduct it in Brazil next October.

Sinfonia No. 4 is likable and unpretentious. It loosely follows a traditional symphonic Plan--four movements progressing from relatively abstract material toward a finale grounded in dance rhythms, in this case a clave figure with loads of percussion in tow, pointing to Sierra's Puerto Rican heritage. The piece avoids pastiche and projects an integrated musical language.

The work's gestures are broad and clear, despite complex textures and melodies often moving peripatetically between instruments. The music is peppered with pungent dissonances, often at the climax of a dynamic swell, but these supply direction and lead to resolution even if the harmonic details are not always conventionally tonal. The third movement's deliciously voiced final chord seemed at first to be a freer coloristic dissonance, but even here Sierra was preparing a larger-scale resolution into his rousing finale.

Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 2 (1966) is probably the composer's least flashy concerto and hardly a crowd-pleaser. Much of the score has a frosty, pensive character. Since the young soloist's approach is invariably described as "passionate", it was not obvious what direction the performance would take.


Weilerstein's breathtakingly rich tone and her complete technical control were immediately evident. She seemed to breeze through long double-stop passages without intonation troubles, leaving listeners free to hear musical expression rather than sweat and rosin. In the first movement she struck a fine balance between clarity of detail and patient attention to long lines that can meander if not carefully shaped. Where the second movement quotes a Ukrainian popular song, she managed to convey a delightful fiddler's touch without compromising her sound or softening the taut rhythms of the movement's other theme.

Part of the work's drama is the threat that the orchestra, particularly brass and percussion, will overwhelm the soloist at some points; this happened a couple of times, but for the most part balances felt very natural. Conductor and soloist were in complete accord about the overall interpretation, which was certainly weighty but never lapsed into the stark desolation Shostakovich's later works are sometimes subjected to.

Sierra's Sinfonia No. 4 and Weilerstein's Shostakovich pretty much stole the show from the more familiar works. Chalk this up as evidence that a composer's real audience is the performer. Great players convinced of a piece's worth will convey that to listeners; and, judging by the crowd's response, that was certainly the case here.

Guerrero's reading of Mozart's Symphony No. 35 (Haffner) was tasteful and natural, with pleasing moderate tempos in the inner movements, though it felt a bit less polished than the rest of the program.

Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole was a terrific showcase for the orchestra, with the hall's excellent acoustics delivering every detail of the score. Ravel seems to give every player a tune somewhere, making an interesting contrast with Sierra's dense textures and Shostakovich's spare, transparent scoring. The evening-long percussion workout continued, and the strength of Nashville's winds also stood out. The first movement's rhythmically free passages for pairs of clarinets and bassoons must be devilishly hard to coordinate, but the unity of the players evidenced painstaking rehearsal.

Overall, Guerrero does not seem inclined to stamp his identity on the music but rather to convey his delight about it to players and listeners alike. His taste, enthusiastic energy, and gregarious rapport with the orchestra made for a delightful evening, boding well for the Nashville Symphony's future under his leadership.

Source Citation
Johnston, Russell. "Nashville Symphony: Sierra: Sinfonia No. 4: world premiere." American Record Guide Jan.-Feb. 2010: 36. Fine Arts and Music Collection. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.
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