For the 14th time in the new millennium, the Nashville Symphony was triumphant at the Grammy Awards on Sunday.
But the shine of the award was reflected not only on the city, its players, institution leadership and its patrons, but also its philosophy.
The symphony was honored for its performance in creating the first and only recording of the late, great Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 5, which garnered the award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
“It become a wonderful, beautiful tribute to Chris Rouse. ... And now I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to him and his incredible career,” conductor Giancarlo Guerrero said. “We’re very honored to be forever linked to this incredible composer.
“This could not have happened at a better time when things seem a bit bleak, but things are starting to happen and the light is at the end of the tunnel.”
The world-class institution is no stranger to compiling accolades.
Over the years Nashville Symphony President and CEO Alan Valentine and music director Guerrero have blazed a progressive path that heavily features modern American composers, as opposed to rerecording the old masters ad nauseam.
That idea started with former conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn’s affinity for the New England School of Composition and American classics, before Valentine and Guerrero began to shift that identity to more contemporary American composers over time.
For both, it’s a duty they feel stems inherently from Nashville’s connection to popular music.
“All music was new. Beethoven had world premieres,” Guerrero said. “For us, we think that we are doing a service not only to our community, but we’re doing a service to our art form, that we are expanding the repertoire.
“If we stop doing that, just looking to the past, eventually we’re going to run out of music. We need to make sure that we’re not only championing the voices of the past, but the voices of the present. ... These are the things that are going to be the standards of the future.”
The orchestra doesn’t mind stepping outside the box either, in recent years pairing with the likes of virtuoso bassist Victor Wooten, singer-songwriter Ben Folds and, most recently, hair metal’s Kip Winger.
“The musical tapestry that is Nashville is so incredibly rich. ... We’re very open-minded here,” Valentine said. “The great composers of the past, those composers wrote popular music, all kinds of music. If Mozart were alive today, he’d have every electronic toy there is.”
It’s an attitude that sets Nashville apart from its symphony peers, but at the end of the day, a symphony is primarily about pure classical music, and Rouse represented a titan in the modern American sense.
In 2016, the Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-winning Rouse, one of the mostly widely recorded composers of his time, commissioned the Nashville Symphony to record his yet-recorded Symphony No. 5, a bombastic and energetic love letter to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, after first commissioning the Dallas Symphony to premiere it.
Guerrero and Rouse became acquainted when the former reached out to the latter via email, merely on a whim. Rouse had long been at the top of Guerrero’s collaboration wish list.
“Within not even 30 minutes, I got this wonderful message from Chris that basically said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this email for years. I know who you are. I know about the Nashville Symphony,’ “ Guerrero said. “Of course, from that point on, we immediately hit it off.”
What ensued were multiple trips to Nashville, where Rouse generously met with area composers and otherwise took in the city.
Meanwhile, the players rehearsed their hearts out, attempting to master difficult terrain.
“It’s brutally difficult, and I’m sugarcoating it,” said Guerrero, calling it the progressive heavy metal of classical. “He was never shy about writing challenging music from a technical perspective.
“Chris was a very mild-mannered, quiet, very serious guy, and then you hear his music and it was like ‘Oh, my God, the guy just went wild!’ “
“He has an uncanny ability to create the kind of visceral energy in his music when it’s required,” he said. “It also can be very beautiful.”
Guerrero says Nashville’s culture as a town of talented session musicians accustomed to recording live helped conquer it.
“It was challenging in a very rewarding sense,” Guerrero said. “By the end, by looking at the reaction of the audience, by hearing the recording, we felt we had achieved something. It’s not just hard for the sake of driving you crazy.”
During the process, Rouse confided in Guerrero that he considered the piece his “scariest” due to its proximity to Beethoven’s legendary Fifth Symphony in style and name.
Guerrero remembers Rouse frequently thanking musicians during rehearsals as he ran into them in the halls for taking on the challenge.
“Every time he came to Nashville, he was always in such high spirits,” Guerrero remembered. “Even though he was struggling healthwise, I know this from his wife, his trips to Nashville were a great shot in the arm for him because we were making music.
“He could hear his piece being played at the highest level. It was going to get recorded, and there was going to be a permanent record of this for the future.”
The piece was ultimately recorded at Nashville’s world-class Schermerhorn Symphony Center in the fall of 2017. It appears on a compilation alongside Rouse’s “Supplica” and “Concerto for Orchestra.”
“(Rouse) said there’s something very special in this place when you see the energy of the audience when they listen to new music,” Guerrero said. “There’s something very unique he could see that the audience has a training and curiosity that reflects what’s happening musically in the town.”
In September 2019, Rouse died after a long illness.
“For me, this was one of the greatest privileges to get a chance to know him before he passed and more importantly to collaborate with him,” Guerrero said. “Even though I only met him at the end, it’s like I’ve known him all my life. And I miss him. I think about him almost every day.”
Release and aftermath
In the summer of 2020, Rouse’s musical legacy was bolstered with the release of the recording on classical label Naxos.
“We became part of his family almost, and that we are very, very proud of,” Guerrero said. “As artists, what we have left after we’re gone is our productions.”
On Sunday, the mission of the Nashville Symphony was recognized worldwide as the unwitting conductor disembarked from a journey from Poland.
He first received a text from an old friend that simply said “Congratulations.”
“It was my birthday, so that’s what I thought he was referring to,” Guerrero said.
Then when he made his way to the baggage claim, his phone exploded.
“That’s when you know it’s good news,” Guerrero said with a laugh.
And there’s likely more good news on the way, with the symphony planning a flexible, scalable fall season to mark its return.
When it occurs, it will be a far cry in tone from the pandemic, which left the symphony without 67% of its budget, leading to furloughs and suddenly aimless performers. Performers were eventually brought back at reduced salary via donations and federal aid.
“We’ve seen incredible support from the community,” Valentine said. “We are deeply grateful for the commitment they’ve made to this institution. They’re the reason we’re going to be successful as we reemerge. It’s because of this community.”
It will be moving forward with the mantra of giving further voice to female composers and composers of color.
And when the patrons return to the symphony, they can expect the unexpected.
“There will be surprises. We know now we ought to try and be more flexible, having the ability to seize opportunities that happen in the moment,” Valentine said. “We’re going to try to find ways to do things that are more timely. There will be a sense of adventure.”
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