Idina Menzel, the Tony Award-winning star of Broadwayâs Wicked and the hit TV show Glee, performs with the Nashville Symphony at Fontanel Saturday, June 16, 2012 in Nashville, Tenn. (GEORGE WALKER IV / THE TENNESSEAN)
Though classically trained, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra is contemporary in mission.
Through genre-defying collaborations with musicians and composers, the organization has modernized beyond the Mozart era, embracing an artistic vision that underlines its focus to create, promote and preserve an American repertoire.
Mozart, yes. But performances also showcase the work of contemporary American composers, including Béla Fleck and Terry Riley, while embracing artists from other genres, partnering with country singers, Broadway bastions and bands that redefined R&B.
“Not that classics aren’t relevant and important, but you have to give that context,” Nashville Symphony CEOAlan Valentine said. “You have to make sure the orchestra doesn’t become a museum. If we always do something fresh and vibrant, then you have a reason to go to the orchestra often, and what you find there is relevant to modern life.
“That’s been our thought process, and it’s been proven to be successful.”
The symphony pushes outside the acoustic splendor of its Schermerhorn Symphony Center home to play in public squares, wooded amphitheaters and at riverfront celebrations — including Nashville’s upcoming Fourth of July celebration.
The dedication to original programming has earned the orchestra respect and recognition. In May, the symphony received an invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall as part of Spring for Music — a festival that celebrates innovative initiatives. This month, the symphony became one of 24 American orchestras honored with an ASCAP award for “adventurous programming,” which recognizes ensembles that challenge the audience, build the repertoire and increase interest in the music of today’s time.
The symphony’s modern mission really doesn’t differ from composers who pushed the envelope in centuries past. Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven — all today considered classical — were edgy and contemporary in their time.
“We are not doing anything really different than those days,” Nashville Symphony Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero said. “But, because the world is so much smaller and more connected, we have a wider range of sources to grab on to.”
Electric violinist Tracy Silverman (photo: Larry McCormack/The Tennessean)
Indeed, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center is becoming a musical meeting place unlike most others.
Though cities like New York and Chicago have access to myriad musicians mostly due to their size and artistic scope, the melding of musical genres seems less germane to the brand identity of those regions.
“As a New Yorker, we have the entire world on an island,” said American composer Richard Danielpour, who collaborates with symphonies across the country, including Nashville’s. “Being that as it is, we have every kind of music that exists, but there is a sense of tremendous compartmentalization. One kind of music never touches another kind.
“In Nashville, various kinds of music seem to all exist with an appreciation and even, at times, a co-mingling of whatever comes to bear. That is healthy.”
That is not to say that Danielpour believes classical music only should be about crossover. There certainly is a place for classical as it currently exists, he said. “But I think it is wonderful when there’s a tremendous appreciation on either side for what the other is doing.”
Composers on board
In Music City, that appreciation is intuitive.
For more than half a century, the Nashville Symphony has put on its pops series, calling upon out-of-genre artists such as Wynonna, Jewel and Peter Cetera to join the symphony’s classical styling.
In the early 1990s, it added the Pied Piper series to engage youth in the orchestral experience, making classical music fun through music from The Lion King and Pirates of the Caribbean.
And six years ago came the symphony’s jazz series, which in the past has included versatile guitarist Al Di Meola and this season will pair with special guest Esperanza Spalding, a 2011 Grammy Award winner for best new artist.
The symphony also stretches beyond the confines of its own building for unique shows.
In 2011, the symphony played in front of the Metro Courthouse with K.S. Rhoads as part of Live on the Green. Last week it appeared at Fontanel with Idina Menzel — the Tony Award-winning star of Broadway’s Wicked. And next month the symphony will again play on the Riverfront for the city’s Fourth of July celebration with Music City Hit-Makers, a group of local singer-songwriters.
Each collaboration, Guerrero said, is created only after it has answered the question: “Will this work in Nashville?”
“This is Music City,” he said. “This is an audience that is exposed to every possible genre. Because they are exposed to a wider range of styles, they are more welcoming than other cities when it comes to new musical projects.
“We have a duty to continue expanding the repertoire. We need to do this for history’s sake. If we don’t start creating the warhorses of tomorrow, we are going to run out. This is about leaving our mark, our testament to the future.”
Noted composers nationwide are committed.
From the groundbreaking banjo sound of Fleck’s Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra and the haunting electric tones of Terry Riley’s violin concerto written for Tracy Silverman to the heartfelt tribute to Iran's long-suffering people in Danielpour’s Darkness in the Ancient Valley, modern talent continues to create commissions for the Nashville Symphony.
“I am picky,” Fleck said. “I am the person quietly not into things because they are not good enough, but the Nashville Symphony is good enough.”
The symphony’s persistence in its mission is another example of how it stands apart. In tough financial times, it is many organizations’ reflexive reaction to return to classic composers and present repertoires they know will attract an audience, Danielpour said.
Experimenting with unique collaborations and untested works is an unknown, Danielpour said, but it can only serve to strengthen an audience base and underscores this symphony’s commitment.
“Across the board there is an extraordinary sense of enthusiasm coupled with teamwork,” Danielpour said. “There is a sense of unity in their purpose, which I don’t know I have seen in any orchestra in the United States, and believe me I have seen a lot of them.”
Past, future meet
When country singer Randy Travis first lent his deep vocal instrument to such a large instrumental ensemble, it was overwhelming.
“The first time I did that, it scared me to death,” said Travis, who collaborated with the Nashville Symphony as part of the Community Hymn Sing and who will again take the stage with the orchestra during the 2013 Pops Series. “It’s such a different feel, and the show itself is a bit of a challenge. It makes you feel you have to be mentally sharp.”
But, he said, there’s a special sound in Nashville music — a vibe even a symphony should not ignore. And just as it embraces artists like him, he welcomes the orchestra’s forceful resonance: “I love hearing that kind of sound to sing with,” Travis said.
That genre-connecting relationship, Fleck said, does not necessarily negate the traditional classical sound. Instead, he believes it enhances it by offering context to how truly progressive the composers of old were.
“It marries the traditional classical scene with the modern day and it highlights both,” Fleck said. “Because when you see what’s going on now and compare it to what was going on before, you see some of the splendor of what came before and it puts it in perspective. We don’t have a lot of Bachs and Mozarts walking around.
“It’s about inclusion and it’s about community, and it shows what people are doing now that they didn’t do back then. ... They are not abandoning anything, but they are also opening arms to the future.”