“Led by Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero and President and CEO Alan D Valentine, the Nashville Symphony is today regarded as one of America’s most creative and innovative orchestras. With more than 140 performances annually, it is Tennessee’s preeminent cultural institution. One of the most active recording orchestras in America … the Symphony’s recent Naxos recording of (American composer) Joan Tower’s ‘Made in America’ received three GRAMMY awards. That recording was the orchestra’s first at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, known internationally for its world-class acoustics.” ~ from the liner notes of the symphony’s recording of ‘Metropolis Symphony’.
When we arrived in Nashville, Tom (Brislin) and I wandered into town looking for lunch fit for two starving travelers. Naturally I knew all about the ‘southern comfort’. I am not referring to a swig of whiskey nor the song by rock band Sweet F.A. which does however reference this potent brew. I am talking about sticky sweet BBQ and Ribs of which there was plenty!
As we strolled down the main street, we were on the receiving end of live music wafting through the open doors of many a small diner. Not surprisingly, country music was the accoutrement to the local cuisine.
My next impression of Nashville was to be my confrontation with Schermerhorn Symphony Center and its owner, the Nashville Symphony led by its music director, Giancarlo Guerrero.
The Nashville Symphony has a long and glorious history which began in 1920 when a group of amateur and professional musicians formed their own orchestra and organised The Symphony Society. Two world wars passed before a formal entity was established. In 2006, the symphony was given its own home in the form of the statuesque Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Music directors William Strickland, Guy Taylor, Willis Page, Thor Johnson, Michael Charry and, Kenneth Schermerhorn – the man credited with raising the symphony to new levels of artistic achievement and for whom the Symphony Center is named – preceded the luminous career of Giancarlo Guerrro who stepped into those shoes in the 2009/10 season.
I receive the distinct honour of chatting with the eminent maestro.
Maestro Guerrero turns out to be a very amiable chap and most personable, with a sense of humour to boot! Tom holds the vidcam while I get into position to tackle the maestro.
Giancarlo Guerrero tells me he comes from a non-musical family. Being music lovers though, his parents enrolled him in after-school lessons hoping to instill in him the same love, and to keep him from simply getting into mischief.
Originally from Nicaragua, Guerrero moved to Costa Rica when he was 11. Though this activity of making music began as a hobby, the bug bit him hard. He couldn’t help but have a wonderful time in the ensemble playing percussion and “anything you could bang”. Whatever he did between after-school and when it was time to go to college, he must have executed with sterling effort, for he received a scholarship to study music at Baylor University in Texas, before attaining a master’s degree in conducting from Northwestern University, Illinois.
With a smile on his face, he tells me his hands were tied when it came to the classes he was required to take at undergraduate level. I picture the precocious 11-year-old Giancarlo in dirty dungarees getting into all kinds of trouble hitting pots and pans and things of the sort, still getting in trouble as a young adult. Giancarlo wasn’t quite interested in conducting yet it was not something he could opt out of.
But, little by little he began to enjoy being in front of an orchestra. His teacher even remarked that he looked comfortable with a stick in his hand and that he had good rhythm! Conducting began to take a front seat and playing percussion the back seat.
I could tell after 15 minutes of speaking to this man that he has worked extremely hard to get to where he is. “How so” you ask? I’ve had the pleasure of meeting musicians who have achieved fame and sometimes fortune, or at least a certain status in the musician hierarchy, and observed that they demonstrate humility, discipline and have an easiness about them. Through the years of honing their craft, they reach a point where they are their music and their music is them. Comfortable with themselves and the people around them, they do not try to be something they are not. This position makes them prime candidates to aim for excellence over and over again because they are open to new ideas and they do it naturally. This is a result of the passage of time or, maturity.
“Conducting is a tough career to start because it requires age and a lot of maturing. Unlike percussion, if you want to practice you just pick up an instrument and play, With conducting, your instrument is this dragon with a hundred heads. How do you practice?”
Since succumbing to nerves as a novice, Guerrero has successfully planted a firm foothold in the land of conducting.
I am listening to the CD recording of ‘Metropolis Symphony’ by Michael Daugherty as performed by the Nashville Symphony with maestro Guerrero at the helm. Metropolis which took 6 years to complete writing, was inspired by the 1988 Cleveland celebration of the 50th anniversary of Superman’s 1st appearance in the comics. The liner notes tell us that Metropolis is ‘non-programmatic work, expressing the energies, ambiguities, paradoxes and wit of American popular culture.’
Recorded in the Laura Turner Concert Hall of Schermerhorn, the CD was released in September 2009 on the Naxos label (I will be covering my visit to their U.S. headquarters in Franklin TN, in a future article.)
I am firstly intoxicated by the performance and the calibre of the musicianship and make a quick comparison with the performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra which premiered this work at the Carnegie Hall in 1994, then taken aback by the quality of the production as offered by the Laura Turner Hall. I will be covering the 120 million dollar ‘jewel in the crown’ aka Schermerhorn, in an upcoming article.
Daugherty’s fixation with American pop culture and the comic book can perhaps be likened to that of fellow American pop artist Lichtenstein’s in the visual arts. Fresh from listening to Astor Piazolla’s Buenos Aires (see next para), I take an immediate liking to Red Cape Tango, the 5th movement from Metropolis, whose principal melody it seems, was derived from the Medieval Latin death chant Dies irae.
When I enquired as to what kind of musician the maestro looks for, he tells me it is one who understands the ‘sound’, is technically gifted and smart. Back at the Laura Turner Concert Hall, I leave the symphony still rehearsing, and the box seats that are neatly perched over the orchestral stage. My close encounter with the symphony resounds with the lyrical refrains from ‘Buenos Aires’ by Argentinian composer Astor Piazolla. What a performance, even at rehearsal!
The members of the Nashville Symphony come from all parts of the world. Most of them are also studio musicians. According to Guerrero this makes them ‘versatile and highly in tune with the nature of live performance’ which is to be able play everything and anything. The art of performing in front of a live audience and then for a recording session necessitates two separate sets of skills with some crossover. In America, professional musicians make a living playing live and as session musicians. Being a multi instrumentalist, adaptable, open-minded, approachable, technically and musically knowledgeable and being able to meet a client’s needs without expensive downtime, make for a successful and solid career that won’t see you on the park bench or visiting that pawn shop any time in your career. With that said, many do teach and perform a myriad of other specialised jobs related to their primary occupation.
A union orchestra, the Nashville Symphony administers its own affairs to include the employment of new members and the management of its own home. With regards to the former, they are required to advertise all positions. No inside jobs allowed. The musicians and their music director are partners in the entity and it is a bilateral decision when defining the qualities needed to fill a position. Once this decision is made, an advertisement is placed in the International Musician, the official journal of the American Federation of Musicians that circulates the USA and Canada. Typically 150-200 people show up to an audition that is conducted behind a screen. This guarantees that the musicianship and attributes crucial to selecting the right person are not overshadowed by the outer attributes of the player, such as verbose activity. The elected musician’s committee go through the first round of elimination. Over the course of a few such rounds only 4-6 players are left before the maestro enters the picture with a clear idea as to what kind of ‘sound’ he is looking for. This ‘sound’ by the way happens to be how well the musician blends with and shapes that of the orchestra’s.
“Ravel is not played like Stravinsky or Beethoven. Every composer has his own language. You want the musician to have the ability to shape and adjust their playing to the benefit of the music making. You can (actually) see the engine (that is processing this information in) the brain going. Playing very fast and very quick (is just) a bunch of quick notes. Being able to assess and accommodate shows a lot of depth and maturity in the music making. You admire that.”
As a befitting end to our meet, the maestro gestures toward the concert hall; he feels fortunate to have the privilege of working with the orchestra and to be able to make the grounds of the magnificent Schermerhorn part of his daily trek. Guerrero talks about taking the orchestra on tour; “It is great to say you are world class but you are not until you have gone out into the world and played in the great concert halls in the different cities, (in this way also) increasing the level of the musicianship and (becoming) more inspired.”
A final word from the maestro is of course about conducting. Learn what not to do was his advise. “Great conductors achieve with little effort as everything comes from within; natural and musical.” And find a front row seat on how to be a conductor. Such is the same with life!
Read Nashville; a Prelude to a journey into the 3rd coast for a list of list of videos on my YouTube Oceanachine channel and articles about my week-long trip to uncover the diverse nature of the music scene in the music city.
Video clip Part un: The Nashville Symphony rehearsing in the Laura Turner Concert Hall
Video clip Part deux: Giancarlo Guerrero is ‘auditioned’ in Schermerhorn Symphony Center
Photos & videos (c) 2009 Shueh-li Ong (unless specified, all articles written by Shueh-li Ong bear the photography, videography and digital work of its author.)