Guerrero illustrates reasons to be excited about Nashville Symphony's future

Giancarlo Guerrero
The Tennessean

Welcome to Nashville, Giancarlo Guerrero. The wonderfully energetic, entertaining and joyful All-Gershwin Gala at Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Saturday is a strong indication of just how fortunate Nashville is to have you here.

To open the Nashville Symphony's 2008-09 season, the conductor and music director designate bounded on stage and led his musical colleagues, a live audience and TV viewers through a delightful run of legendary American composer George Gershwin's orchestral compositions.The evening started with a stirring rendition of The Star Spangled Banner arranged by Walter Damrosch. Damrosch commissioned Concerto in F major for Piano and Orchestra, the second of four Gershwin selections played during the concert.

Gershwin's Cuban Overture then entertained with its rumba-flavored, percussion-fueled beat - an appropriate starting selection for a conductor who began his musical career in the percussion section. Claves, bongos, guiro and maracas coupled with the seamless interplay of woodwinds, horns and other instruments made this piece a tasty musical cocktail to kick off the evening.

The Concerto was next. Accompanying symphony musicians through the three-movement composition was Kevin Cole, who Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich called "...the best Gershwin pianist in America today."

It's easy to see, and hear, why Reich made that statement. Cole's infectious enthusiasm and spirited but focused fingering of the keys was delightful. Fine pianists, like good actors and other successful artists, allow us to find their transitions of mood and moment believable while not allowing us to notice them making those transitions.

There were many such transitions during the movements - a sonata form in the first, a slow, ballad-like movement in the second and a fast rondo for the finish - and Cole gave rich, varied life to all sections without revealing the mechanics beneath.

That same artistic grace could be found in the play of Nashville Symphony musicians throughout the evening. They have long been technically magnificent, and over years of playing together they have learned to listen to and blend with each other to reveal more about the music they're playing.

There was a portion of the second movement of the Concerto, for example, where I felt I could discern the foreshadowing of Gershwin's self-described "folk opera," Porgy and Bess, which premiered 10 years after the Concerto's first performance in 1925. I owe that feeling to the ensemble of talented professionals in the symphony.

After intermission, Gershwin's An American in Paris filled Laura Turner Concert Hall with the sounds of the City of Lights. With the musicians' deft and vibrant play, and Guerrero's lively baton and swaying body, I could see Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing in the classic 1951 film of the same name inspired by Gershwin's 1928 composition; I could smell the fresh baguettes in the bakeries; I could hear the city's bustling noises - such as the honking horns of Parisian cab drivers; and I could feel the electricity of being in one of the world's most beautiful capitals.

The evening's program concluded with Rhapsody in Blue as Cole once again sat at the Steinway piano center stage. This 1924 piece is familiar to many - a portion of it gets played around America every time a United Airlines ad airs on television, and it's become a staple of orchestral play in the US and elsewhere.

From the distinctive opening clarinet glissando through its jazz-infused body to its triumphant finish, Cole and Nashville Symphony through their balance of technical clarity and emotional warmth made this Rhapsody one to thoroughly enjoy.

Cole provided a good reason not to leave too quickly after the programmed pieces were completed. Following multiple ovations for conductor and musicians Cole performed two terrific encores - Fascinating Rhythm, which was written by George and his brother Ira for the 1924 Fred Astaire-Adele Astaire Broadway musical vehicle Lady, Be Good; and I Got Rhythm from their 1930 musical Girl Crazy that made Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers stars on the Great White Way.

Guerrero and his Nashville Symphony colleagues - along with Cole - gave us quite a treat with their opening concert, which marks Guerrero's first season. Adding this to his previous Music City appearances leaves us excited about the future.