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Nashville's classical scene enters a golden age

Classical Gas

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Nashville's classical music community had such a good year it's doubtful we'll see anything like it again soon. At least we'll have the memories. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra won its seventh Grammy Award and returned to Carnegie Hall. Nashvillians heard their first Mahler "Symphony of a Thousand" and, thanks to Music City Baroque, experienced their first period-instrument performance of Bach's mighty Mass in B minor.

Most importantly, 2012 was the year Nashvillians embraced contemporary art music. The Nashville Symphony commissioned legendary composer Terry Riley to write a new electric violin concerto its Carnegie trip (music director Giancarlo Guerrero, who renewed his contract through 2020, and violinist Tracy Silverman gave the work a bracing performance). Not to be outdone in the new-music department, the Blair School of Music presented two important world premieres of its own, Michael Hersch's Images From a Closed Ward and Richard Danielpour's Twelve Etudes for Piano.

Nashville Opera also got in on the new-music act, staging David Lang's avant-garde opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. John Hoomes, the opera's artistic director, turned the production into an ambitious collaborative venture, crossing genres to work with internationally acclaimed opera singers as well as actors from Tennessee Repertory Theatre and Nashville Shakespeare Festival. Local actors and singers made up the production's terrific chorus. Meanwhile, a quartet of musicians from Nashville's Alias Chamber Ensemble played Lang's moody, post-minimalist score.

Alias had an especially great year. Matt Walker, the ensemble's cellist and resident composer, wrote music for a ballet called Arabian Blues. Nashville Ballet's artistic director Paul Vasterling created the work's sweetly intimate choreography. Nashville Ballet, by the way, made its own bid for the big time with a primal, visceral staging of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The Nashville Symphony played the heart-pounding score.

This year marked the centennial of experimental composer John Cage's birth, and the Blair School of Music's Vortex percussion ensemble made sure the composer was properly feted. Michael Holland, Vortex's artistic director, arranged a pre-concert festival outside Ingram Hall featuring dancers, jugglers, actors and musicians all performing simultaneously, resulting in the sort of glorious cacophony that Cage loved. The concert proper featured former dancers of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing to Cage's music. Vortex provided the expert accompaniment.

Pianist Craig Nies made significant headway this year in his apparent goal of single-handedly performing the entire canon of Western music. In the spring, the longtime Blair professor wrapped up a five-year survey of J.S. Bach's complete Well-Tempered Clavier. To cement his standing as Nashville's keyboard king, he included a performance of Beethoven's monumental "Hammerklavier" Sonata in the final recital. Nies passed on his penchant for musical marathons to the next generation in August, when he staged a festival honoring the sesquicentennial of Claude Debussy. Dozens of Blair piano students participated.

Students at Belmont University had a great year, thanks to the opening of the university's new McAfee Concert Hall — it took about two years and roughly $7 million to turn the old Belmont Baptist Church into a performance space. The hall has marvelous acoustics, and the students now have a venue worthy of their talents.

Shortly after the Nashville Symphony received its most recent Grammy, orchestra president Alan Valentine made an audacious statement. He said Nashville is now entering into a golden age of classical music. Anyone who doubts that need only look at Nashville's 2012 classical lineup.

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