Music City

Fountain outside the Schermerhorn Center.  The Nashville Predators play in the stadium in the background.

Nashville on a Saturday night, and the city is hopping.  It’s unusually warm for a late September night–the temperature is still close to 90 F even at at 6 pm.  As I make my way towards a parking lot, I get stuck behind limos, buses, and a mobile bar being pedaled by its patrons. Broadway is awash in neon and a constantly swirling party that no flat map can convey.  I pass the Ryman Theatre, home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974.  Traffic barely moves amongst the teeming crowds, but I find a space to park almost right across the street from a striking neo-classical building that seems in marked contrast to the honky-tonk spirit in the air.  A fountain plays outside.  It seems a little hard to believe that a symphony concert could be taking place a block from boisterous Broadway (and across the street from the arena home to the NHL’s weirdest team, the Predators.)  But here I am, dressed in 30s-style pants and blouse in the midst of a whole lot of short dresses, tank tops, cowboy hats and Western boots, and I need to find food.  Cell phone data is spotty–the result of a constant deluge of selfies–but I saw a Panera on the way in, and I venture past the chaos to find a few minutes of quiet and a steak and arugula sandwich, before venturing back into the flood of humanity.

This is not in my wheelhouse.  I like the neon, and people are clearly having fun, but I am not one of them. Identically-dressed bachelorette parties with garlands of roses in their hair or matching t-shirts pass.  Music spills out from every bar, every restaurant, a constantly-evolving medley of (mostly) country music.  Queues form here and there. A panhandler with a tabby kitten elicits a tip after a kitty fix.  I feel a little like an ambassador from a different planet   The guy at the store where I buy Goo Goo Clusters ask if I’m having a good time when he hears it’s my first visit.  I nod and smile.  I’m not lying, but this isn’t why I’m there.

Corner of Broadway and 2nd, Nashville. Note both the party streetcar and the party bike.

I have driven–all total, over two days, over rush hour traffic in Cincinnati and an accident on I-71–twelve hours to be here. Twelve hours for one concert that will last two hours and 20 minutes, for a symphony concert.  In Nashville.  Why?  I have perfectly wonderful symphony orchestras as close as half an hour away.  But here, on the periphery of driving insanity, this orchestra–the Nashville Symphony–chose to program the 4th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, and that is a rare and precious thing.  The 4th Symphony–composed, pulled from performance in the face of official condemnation and fear, nearly forgotten for 25 years before it received its premiere–and my constant Tuesday night companion, in a tradition I fell into by pure happenstance when I discovered the work was precisely the right length for a 21:13 train ride home.  I know this work intimately.  But I know I won’t truly know it until I’ve heard it live.  The chance is now.

Dressed in 30s attire, in honour of the symphony’s composition year of 1936.

The clock ticks.  I hear it.  Now, here, I have agency.  I have settled uneasily into middle age, seeing friends left and right laid low by heart ailments,  by strokes, by crippling pain.  I recently saw the daughter of a friend finally succumb to the cancer that stalked her relentlessly through her teen years. Other friends have lost jobs, had marriages cleave apart.  I see a world around me increasingly in the clutch of demagogues.  I have always believed that if you only plan for the future, you will never have a present. And this is my present.  I can still drive these long distances, feeling energized by the feel of the road beneath my wheels, the romance of the truckstops and their odd food choices; the rest stops with their maps and tourist brochures and vending machines, frozen in time.  I do not care to gamble when a sure thing is in my grasp–and even a sure thing is not always sure (as my concert experience in Montreal revealed).


And so, I leave the crowds behind and pass into the Schermerhorn Symphony Center–which, contrary to appearances, is not an old building at all.  Named for a former director of the Symphony, the building was completed in 2006; the main hall seats 1800–of a size with the Maison Symphonique in Montreal I just visited–and shares a similar reputation for acoustic excellence.  The building’s main lobby and lounges are full of marble and beautiful light colours and helpful staff who help me go out to find the hat I had dropped by the fountain.  This is a different world, a different Nashville, but just as much Music City as the one outside–because this, as I’ve found out, is a symphony orchestra very much dedicated to presenting challenging works (often by newer composers, many commissioned pieces) alongside the standard classics and pops programs that bring in the sure crowds.   The orchestra does a lot of recordings on the Naxos label and have won several Grammy awards over the past couple of decades.  Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, who has led the orchestra for eleven years, seems to have a real affinity for programming the harder-to-find Shostakovich symphonies, having performed the 8th last November.

And, as I discovered, I’d get to hear a significant part of the work twice.  This was a Beyond the Score concert, a cousin of the Naked Classics presentation I’d seen back in April, with a narrative, multimedia presentation illustrating the historical context of the work, accompanied by portions of the work–a presentation I found engaging primarily from my perspective as a historian; it did not focus much on the music itself from a technical perspective.   The entire symphony was then played in the second half.


I was not prepared for those opening bars.  I’ve heard them a hundred times on headphones, but they still left me breathless as the orchestra–over 100 musicians (including 20 woodwinds along, as the program notes mentioned, two sets of tympani, eight horns, and just about every percussion instrument known to humankind) opened up with those dissonant chords, followed by the crude, propulsive march (melody in the brass, the thumping rhythm in the rest of the orchestra, augmented by percussion) flooding up through the stairwells of my mind in a giant rush and into the first cataclysmic crescendo.  Was I actually hearing this?  The volume was staggering.

I was.  Both in the first half presentation and in the full performance during the second half, the orchestra was tight and crisp, with absolutely fierce crescendos into fortissimo, yet bringing out every nuance in the quiet moments (of which there are many), particularly in the first movement. The sound dynamic flux of this work is one of the challenges of listening to it while driving or even on headphones.  There is one particular moment after the second theme (a ghostly waltz) has just spun out when an E flat clarinet tweets out a two-note fragment high in its register, and the harp responds with a two-note fragment low in its register;  in the words of Pauline Fairclough “creating an effect of suspension and estrangement…like a voice from another world.”  I probably listened to the piece 15 times on headphones before I even noticed the harp response, which completes the musical phrase.  Here, it was not lost, nor was the subsequent repetition of the “tweet” to a reply by plucked strings.    The enormous contrast in the first movement by the more strident march/polka theme and the dazed, hypnotic waltz theme, again, was brought to the fore in live performance.  And then, there was the famous, furious fugato section (per Fairclough “a massive accumulation of energy, stretching over 200 bars in approximately two and a half minutes”.)  Here, it was the visual component that greatly enhanced the effect, as you could clearly see the entry of each string section, watch in fascination the furious fingerwork, and understand how the section is constructed, building into the enormous climax when all the fugue themes come together and the winds and percussion all pile in and crash into each other, like a car wreck in a snowstorm–to my ears, the loudest point of the entire work, and that’s saying something.  The entire orchestra spits out massive, loud, fragmentary chords before the strings lurch out in a version of the original march/polka, as if, having steered around the massive pile of wreckage left by the chaos of the fugato, they’re continuing on down the road.  Guerrero’s conducting throughout the movement was wild, yet exquisitely controlled–just like the piece itself– with frequent “digs” on the downbeats in the most strident sections.  And somehow the balance was perfect.  Another noteworthy moment was the violin solo towards the end of the movement by concertmaster Jun Iwasaki, gentle and lyrical over chords from the harps, reminding me so much of what Shostakovich would do years later with the Passacaglia of the First Violin concerto.

Listening to the third movement, a thought occurred to me in the midst of the motley assortment of tunes that Shostakovich assembles–waltzes (one of which has a “barrel-organ”/ Keystone Kops feel), polkas, galops, songs, ballet-like music,  references to Mahler and Stravinsky, and one bit that really reminds me of the Papageno theme in Mozart’s Magic Flute–this is precisely what I’d just heard in my walk through Nashville’s Broadway strip.  Not these songs, of course–but the general idea of bringing street music to a symphony. Shostakovich was deliberately assembling a collection of “popular” or “light” songs, perhaps in response to mounting criticism of his “formalist” tendencies, perhaps because of his Mahlerian models, perhaps because of his love of satire and wit, perhaps because humour is so often the only refuge for the persecuted.  (It was pointed out in the multimedia presentation that Shostakovich’s censure in Pravda came about the same time that he was writing this third movement.)  Whatever the case, I think this was the first time I really understood how the disparate parts of this movement work together as a cohesive whole–and how much of the “dance music” is actually a collection of variations on the sedate, Mahler-infused “funeral march” theme at the beginning of the movement.

That march returns after a crescendo of tympani at the end of the movement, and a new chorale theme stated by loud, dissonant brass. As David Hurwitz states:  “It’s supposed to be heroic, but the notes are all wrong, and the result is unsettling.”  Fairclough notes that in this coda, the “celestial” C major crumbles into D flat/C sharp.  The theme itself is “new….and massively overstated”, and then the oboe restates the funeral march theme against it, tying the movement together…before the chorale dissipates suddenly (fff to ppp in just four bars, per Fairclough) and it all dives off a cliff.  Over a steady C rhythm by the basses, tympani, and harps, the initial motif is restated again, and then underneath the quiet strings the beat morphs into a syncopated heartbeat-like rhythm recalling the Pathétique symphony of Tchaikovsky.  The strings hold a barely-perceptible C while the harp provides a few final chords before the celesta enters with a dazed, otherworldly motif, “a symbol of infinite, empty space.”  What I had never noticed before is that the throbbing figure persists almost imperceptibly on the the drum right up until nearly the end–this detail was absolutely lost in recordings.  The ending does, indeed, evoke the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von de Erde (which I got to hear earlier this year), the achingly beautiful “Der Abschied” and its last benediction of “Ewig…ewig”  (Forever…forever).  The final two notes by the celesta (an A and a D), as the strings hold that final C, were shatteringly quiet, holding me in suspense right until the very end, and leading off into some other world as Guerrero held the orchestra with that C fading into infinity.  Guerrero held the silence for several moments while I held my breath, not wanting him to put down the baton and end this.  But he had to, and the applause was immediate and thundering, the audience jumping to their feet.  Guerrero acknowledged the many soloists and sections one by one, with tubas, trombones, clarinets, low woodwinds and concertmaster Iwasaki receiving particularly loud cheers. I reflected later on just how brilliant Shostakovich’s orchestration is in this work–there isn’t a section that at some point does not carry the melody or have a moment in the spotlight. The orchestra (save a couple of slightly sloppy piccolo entrances in the final movement–although it’s quite possible they were written that way) was absolutely flawless. The only thing that would have made this ending even more perfect is that if, somehow, the lights could have dimmed and everyone could have departed in silence–but that would have meant this brilliant performance would not have been given the appreciation it deserved.

Was it worth the long drive to see this work performed live?  There is no question. This work needs to be heard live, more than any other work I can think of.  Even the best recording cannot do it justice.  If this music could do this to me–who knew entirely what to expect–if it could still astound me, surprise me–no wonder it was pulled and hidden away for 25 years.  The world wasn’t ready for this.

And to some extent, it still isn’t.

Pauline Fairclough’s work is A Soviet Credo: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony.  David Hurwitz’s is Shoatakovich Symphonies and Concertos: An Owner’s Manual.

And note the epic beard of the guy in the box–Civil War general epic. I thought it deserved its own applause.  (The audience in this box, as you can see, were nearly sitting in the orchestra, which filled the entire stage).





  1. A great example of the kind of critical essay in which a writer is truly putting thoughts and feelings in order for self-learning experiences.
    My favorite essayists striving for this were music critics Irving Kolodin, William Flanagan and Harris Goldsmith, and literary critics Graham Greene, Alfred Kazin and V.S. Pritchett.
    The only live Shostakovich experiences I have ever had were from Houston Symphony concerts at Jones Hall during the 1980’s- a 10th led by Leonid Grin and the Leningrad and 10th conducted by the late Sergiu Commissiona. They were quite good.


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