Nashville Symphony Gala Review

To be more precise, this is a tale of three concerts as opposed to a review of only one. A new concert hall is a particular creature, just because the building is completed doesn’t mean that it’s settled into its sound. This might not be obvious if you listen to a single concert but it becomes clear once you hear a few of them in a row, especially if you can hear multiple performances of the same program…

Let me begin by saying that Nashville’s new concert hall is a gem of an acoustic space. I was fortunate enough to hear their gala concert program on three different occasions, each under distinctly different listening conditions. The program was an eclectic mix including:

  • Shostakovich – Festive Overture
  • Fleck/Hussain/Meyer – Concerto
  • Barber – Essay No. 2 for Orchestra
  • Mahler – Symphony No. 2 (4th and 5th Movements)

Initially, I have to omit having some trepidation with this program, it smacked of forcing new repertoire alongside warhorses for the sake of making patrons eat their broccoli before they get dessert. After listening to the first performance on Wednesday, September 6th I discovered that those fears were unfounded.

The Fleck/Hussain/Meyer concerto was a fascinating piece that was enjoyable to experience each evening. At the same time, I couldn’t image buying a recording of the piece; it’s something that simply must be experienced live. A recording would simply fall into the category of “lost in translation” as the real star of the piece was tabla master Zakir Hussain, each evening his cadenzas were different and unique. A recording would prevent the listener from enjoying the real gift Zakir Hussain has to offer.

Regardless of what listeners think of the concerto, the real treat was experiencing the hall. Attempting to describe the sound in Nashville’s hall isn’t something easily accomplished by comparison as this hall has a sound unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Three Concerts From 11 Different Seats

Simply put, the hall is a mistress: she can take you to the height of pleasure but if you don’t give her perfection, she will drag you to the depths of hell. Everything produced by the players is effortlessly communicated to the listener throughout the entire hall, the only seat I found myself struggling to listen was in the Founder’s Circle, the lower of the two tiers located in the rear of the shoebox shaped hall.

Even though the Founder’s Circle seat lacked impact, the sound was clear. It was like listening to the concert inside a thin bubble of artificial digital volume leveling, designed to prevent sudden spikes in volume and presence.

Nevertheless, compared to many other venues, some of which cost tens of millions of dollars more, this hall is far superior. As a result, the $120 million price tag is a downright bargain. Moreover, the fact that this hall communicates everything coming from the stage with little effort will help this ensemble move to the next level.

What The Hell Is “The Next Level” Anyway?

This phrase is used quite a bit in this business but what exactly does it mean on an artistic level? From my perspective, it’s a simple equation. When I go to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, I expect that the trumpet section is going to sound good and if they don’t, I’ll be disappointed and surprised. If I go to a Nashville Symphony Orchestra concert I expect the trumpet section will sound good and if they don’t, I’ll be disappointed but not necessarily surprised.

The moment an orchestra can have the majority of its listeners walk into every concert experience with the former attitude, it is safe to say that they have reached “the next level”. In Nashville’s case, this new hall will give them all of the tools they need to do exactly that. If they fail to move to the next level, the only place they can look for blame is within.

In order to keep the Nashville musicians on the straight and narrow, this hall allows them to hear each other with as much clarity and precision as possible. Furthermore, every sound they create is transmitted to the majority of listeners with equal precision and clarity; in a sense, there is nowhere to hide. This openness will force the Nashville players to bring their very best to every rehearsal and every performance, anything less simply won’t do. Each musician will have to decide for themselves if this goal is something they are capable and/or willing to work toward.

Back To The Concert Experience

If I had to describe each of the three concert experiences in a single word, I would do so the following way:

  • Evening #1: power
  • Evening #2: refinement
  • Evening #3: determination

I sat in two different locations on the first evening: orchestra floor fifth row back, just right of center. At such a close proximity, the sound was visceral and at times, overbearing. At intermission, I scrambled for higher ground and settled for something on the Balcony Side, Left (the highest of the three side tiers available), about 2/3 of the way back from the stage. This was a much better seat as the sound had enough distance to properly diffuse and blend. Fortunately, the visceral quality was still there but this time without the overbearing edge.

The second evening was unusual in that it wasn’t open to the public; instead, it was used as a recording and timing session for the public television production crew that would broadcast the opening gala on live television the following evening. Because of this, there were only a handful of people sitting in the audience.

This gave me the ability to move around to seven different seats throughout the concert, which included the Founders Level boxes, the Loge Level boxes, the top balcony, and the Rear Orchestra level. I sat anywhere from half way back from the stage to the very rear of the hall. Although each seat provided a slightly different listening perspective, they all delivered clear, vibrant sound.

On the final evening, the gala concert, I spent the first half of the concert in the Founders Circle tier, which is the middle tier located in the rear of the hall. This is the location which produced the disappointing “listening bubble” mentioned above. Along with the seat in the front of the Orchestra Level from the first evening, this was the least enjoyable seat from a listening perspective.

The best example to illustrate the section’s limitations is the final moments of the Festive Overture. During the other two performances, the antiphonal brass produced a sound that you could feel in the pit of your stomach, and it felt good. It had impact; it made you feel the power of the hall and the perfection of the musicians.

However, the same section from the perspective of the Founders Circle seat offered only a slight bump up in effect. The antiphonal players were all there, apparently playing with all the vigor they did from the previous evenings but you just didn’t feel it. Given the frame of reference established by the previous concerts, this seat offered a disillusioning performance.

During the second half, I swapped seats with an architectural journalist from Toronto that was sitting in the center of the Orchestra Level about 3/4 of the way back. This was a much better seat although I did notice that a sold out house contributed to a higher rate of sound absorption and the impact I enjoyed so much from evening #1 and #2 was diminished a bit, although much improved compared to my seat in the Founders Circle.

Another strong suit in this hall is how well offstage and offstage antiphonal brass sound. During the gala concert, the audience was literally awed by the effect of offstage brass positioned on opposite sides of the shoebox shaped hall. There were numerous murmurs of delight from a majority of listeners as they experienced the audible treat of Mahler’s polyphonic horn calls.

Conclusions

In the end, I think the Laura Tuner concert hall is a fabulous space. I’ll examine some of the visual aspects which contribute to that opinion in a future article but from a listening perspective, the hall is home run (albeit just over the fence, not out of the park).

As the ensemble continues to explore the hall’s potential and work with the acousticians, I’m confident that they’ll find a way to exploit all of the positives and marginalize any negatives while simultaneously finding ways to even out fluctuations in the listening experience. Even so, this hall is worth going out of your way to experience. Plan ahead and make sure they’re playing something you really enjoy and you’ll be glad you took the time.

For everyone out there that loves any works which feature chorus, you must visit this hall. When the chorus came in during the Mahler No. 2, it was pure heaven – all three evenings, regardless of where my seat was located. In my experience I have never heard a better choral venue and whenever the Nashville Symphony gets around to programming Carmina Burana you can rest assured that come hell or high water, I’ll be there.

I invite you to come back next week when I’ll begin published a week long series of articles that will take you inside nearly every nook and cranny of The Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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1 thought on “Nashville Symphony Gala Review

  1. Unfortunately, we performed Carmina Burana with the symphony last season. Of course, we’d be glad to do it again in the new hall anytime.

    As a Nashville Symphony chorus member, I have to say that singing in Laura Turner Hall is pure joy. Having performed Mahler’s 2nd this spring in TPAC and now in the new hall, I can tell you that the difference is night and day. In the past, the chorus would rehearse the pianissimo passages until the tuning and blend were perfect, only to have to throw all of that preparation out the window and sing much louder just to get the sound out past the huge stage to the front row, about 30 yards away (or so it felt).

    You should take advantage of the available seating in the choir loft when it’s available. It is a completely different experience, seeing the conductor’s expression. It’s simply amazing.

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