Dancers, Dreamers and Reticence at the Nashville Symphony

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  • Julieta Cervantes
The opening piece the Nashville Symphony performed last night was a pretty big deal: Dancers, Dreamers and Presidents by Blair School of Music alumnus Daniel Bernard Roumain (aka DBR). As Alan Sherrod wrote in a Critics' Pick the Scene ran this week, it was the 2010 commission from the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium, which includes the Nashville Symphony and eight other orchestras around the country that teamed up to get Roumain's piece created.

So, a locally trained composer who's now a national figure presents an opus that the NSO helped pay for? You'd expect a pretty warm reception. Yet when I attended the concert last night, the applause afterward seemed brief and relatively tepid. And while, in my experience, audiences at the Schermerhorn are quite liberal in their standing ovations — especially for local or nationally known personalities — only a small smattering of the audience actually stood up.

In fact, a gentleman near me quite ostentatiously sat on his hands both after Roumain introduced the work and following the performance. I'm just a casual attendee at Nashville Symphony concerts, but it seemed unusual.

Later I started to wonder if politics were at work. Not byzantine behind-the-scenes fine-arts politics, but the kind of bloody red meat display that we're seeing in the Republican primaries.

As the composer explained onstage before the concert, the piece was inspired when he saw then-Sen. Barack Obama dance with Ellen DeGeneres on her TV show in 2007.

“Watching Obama and DeGeneres dance might not save or change our world,” DBR has said, “but it certainly says many things about where we were, who we are, and how we will all get there.”

Maybe that's a progressive direction the prominent, wealthy Republican wing of Nashville Symphony patrons don't like. Don't Say Gay at the NSO?

Meanwhile, applause was explosive for the final piece in the concert, Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, skillfully directed by guest conductor Kelly Corcoran.

The work is a famous crowd pleaser. The beginning of the final movement is a variation on the composer’s "Fanfare for the Common Man," one of the most sacred bits of heroic Americana in the classical canon.

Of course, Copland was a Brooklyn kid born to Lithuanian immigrants whose political sympathies were probed in the 1950s at hearings called by Commie hunter Joseph McCarthy.

And by the way, here's what Copland had to say about that guy:

"When he touches on his magic theme, the 'Commies' or 'communism,' his voice darkens like that of a minister. He is like a plebeian Faustus who has been given a magic wand by an invisible Mephisto — as long as the menace is there, the wand will work.

"The question is at what point his power grab will collide with the power drive of his own party."

For what it's worth, I found the DBR composition to be stirring and terrific, and combined with Copland's piece, and pianist Angela Hewitt's performance of a concerto by some other guy named Mozart, the concert bill was well worth the price of admission. Performances continue at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

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