Seemingly against all odds Nashville’s classical music community proved in 2020 that they are absolutely unstoppable by still creating memorable experiences for Music City.
Nashville Symphony Records Jennifer Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto
The day after tornadoes cut through Davidson, Wilson, Putnam and Benton counties, composer Jennifer Higdon joined the Nashville Symphony for rehearsals of her Low Brass Concerto, which is planned for an upcoming album release. The orchestra itself was not untouched — several musicians dealt with damaged homes.
Higdon was quite possibly the best composer to have visited the city during that week as the area grieved the loss of 24 people and many, many homes. She is no stranger to grief, having lost her brother at a young age. And in an interview for podcast Classically Speaking, she described how composing her piece Blue Cathedral helped her grieve, and how that shared experience has been helpful to others.
Nashville Opera’s First Commission
An upcoming election. A city filled with antiracism protests. The centennial of the 19th amendment. An opera company’s 40th anniversary season. These are the circumstances that led to Dave Ragland and Mary McCallum’s One Vote Won being an opera fully of our time. While main character Gloria mourns the state of the world and doubts her own ability to effect change, she is visited in a dream by activist Diane Nash and suffragist and educator Frankie Pierce. While the streaming video production was ticketed for the community, it was made free to educators all over the country, reaching approximately 70,000 students. This increase in access made it quite possibly the most-watched opera in Music City’s history.
Tilly Gets Into Trouble
Nashville Symphony clarinetist Katherine Kohler’s miniature Schnauzer Tilly proved to be the unlikely (or likely, once you lay eyes on her) celebrity of classical Nashville’s quarantine-times. Starting with Kohler’s performance of the piece Tilly is named after — Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Kohler layered her own playing and featured Tilly’s antics in the popular video. And for Halloween, a sequel in which Sorcerer’s Apprentice Tilly fell afoul of an evil witch, once again accompanied by Kohler’s one-woman clarinet choir.
Intersection Launches Listen
While groups enact plan A, B and C, Intersection has begun work on a project that will impact the world of classical music for years to come. Twenty-five female, non-binary or non-gender-conforming composers will have newly commissioned pieces premiered by members of the chamber orchestra. Each of these are solo pieces — meaning they have every chance to get played again and again as musicians perform recitals and share music with their students. For a chamber orchestra, this commitment to the solo repertoire is a unique program that will, when it’s complete, likely be seen as a massive gift to the field of new music.
Titus Underwood Brings Musicians Together To “Lift Every Voice”
In June, alongside the call of clarinetist Anthony McGill for musicians to “take a knee,” Nashville Symphony principal oboist brought together a group of Black musicians to perform Lift Every Voice and Sing by brothers James Weldon and J. Rosamun Johnson. George Floyd had been killed in May, and Breonna Taylor in March. Underwood, the executive producer of the project, noted the way young Black musicians are unlikely to see themselves represented in orchestral music, and presented the recording as an act of mourning “senseless loss of lives and fighting for justice.”
chatterbird premieres Mahakala Oratorio
One of the first events postponed by the pandemic was chamber music ensemble chatterbird’s residency for composer Leila Adu. Adu is just as well known for electropop as classical music, so her general sound is a perfect fit for chatterbird, a group that is comfortable bending genres. And chatterbird is also ready to experiment, which came in handy when the decision was made to produce Mahakala Oratorio as a video. Video artist Aaron Sherwood, who was originally set to install visual art for the live performance, added effects to the final product that allowed the listener to melt into the meditation text.
And after all, isn’t a meditation to the Buddhist god of destruction, who acts as a protector from hatred, aggression and ignorance a great way to say farewell to 2020?
Gateway Chamber Orchestra Celebrates Beethoven
The 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven came and went with only a fraction of the expected fanfare. One ensemble that was still able to put together an appropriate birthday party was the Gateway Chamber Orchestra. Seeing an orchestra on a stage was a shock of normalcy for the end of a difficult year. The music selections were a balm for the soul. From George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, written to mourn the composer’s mother, to Starburst — pure joy from Jessie Montgomery during this suffrage anniversary year. And of course, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, with its pressing and pleading second movement, made for a moving selection. The symphony was premiered at a charity concert for wounded soldiers. Beethoven addressed the participants at the concert, saying:
“We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.”
Vanderbilt Animates L’Enfant
Knowing the pandemic would preclude singing together, opera faculty at the Blair School of Music quickly created a new plan. Recording themselves at home on both audio and video, the Vanderbilt Opera Theater was able to produce an animated version of Maurice Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. In an interview for an upcoming episode of podcast Classically Speaking, artist Kevin James Thornton said he was inspired by Sesame Street and the episodic nature of each solo aria from objects around the house. Thornton used motion capture to put the singers’ faces into the action. Paired with Colette’s whimsical libretto, the production is a standout for making a new plan out of your pandemic-busted old one.
Nashville’s Nutcracker Goes To Television
Making the best of things has led to increased access to many beloved local traditions. The prime example of that is Nashville Ballet’s televised production of Nashville’s Nutcracker. With stunning production quality and narration by Tennessee Titan Eddie George, living rooms all over Middle Tennessee (and beyond, thanks to online access) were full of little ones in ballet shoes twirling along. One can’t help but imagine how Nashvillians of all ages were able to relive their favorite Nutcracker holiday memories throughout the broadcast.
Across the country the arts have a long road to recovery ahead. But in 2020 Nashville’s classical musicians have proven that they can pivot, persevere and, most importantly, come together when they need each other the most. And as the city prepares to once again pick up the pieces from an unexpected disaster, a reminder of that collaborative spirit comes from the Nashville Symphony this past June.