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Portrait of a Recording: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis
A Two-Part Feature

A few weeks ago, the staff of got a sneak peak at what promises to be one of the most significant classical releases of 2004. In late April, the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Symphony Chorus, led by Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn, recorded Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, a powerful work written late in the composer's life.

Under Control: Handley leads the sessions from the seclusion of the control room.

We were ready for a treat from the symphony, which had performed the work to two eager audiences during the preceding weekend. The symphony currently performs in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (a dedicated Symphony Hall will be completed in 2006), but the recording venue of choice for this night was Ingram Hall, the stunning new performance hall at Blair School of Music, the prestigious music arm of Nashville's Vanderbilt University.

We arrived at the venue about 45 minutes before the session was slated to begin and were quickly greeted by Wendy Fly, the symphony's production manager and our guide for the night. One of our first stops was the tiny control room, where the engineer would keep a careful eye-and ear-on the production throughout the night. Seasoned engineer Tim Handley had been chosen to preside over this particular recording-his previous Naxos recordings are popular with critics and consumers alike-and his friendly, unassuming demeanor assured us that we were welcome in his domain. Based in the U.K., Handley regularly continent hops to accommodate his busy recording schedule, and he had spent the previous week in New Zealand to make another Naxos recording. Handley seemed happy, if somewhat surprised, at the broad acclaim with which his recordings with Naxos have been received. "I receive these e-mails from people all around the world," he said shyly, "They tell me, 'You've changed my life!'"

Ready to Go: Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn meets the challenge of Beethoven with a smile.

Next we meandered down the back hallway of the building, hoping to discover some of the pre-performance rituals and preparations of the symphony players. From a dark, near-empty room the sounds of a piano drifted lightly down the hall, possibly the thoughts of a pensive musician expressed audibly in a few, sweet notes. Out from the room emerged Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn, a quiet, cheerful figure. Quite willing to make charming conversation with interlopers such as us, he proved himself the embodiment of the gentlemanly figure he presents on the podium.

Unstoppable: Trombonists Larry Borden and Susan K. Smith prepare for the intense, 3.5 hour recording session.

As the start time for the session drew closer, more and more performers began to surface, in various forms of readiness. Some were struggling to finish the last bits of dinner, while others greeted friends and mused on the results of the previous night's recording. A few were already in their places on the stage, going over particularly difficult passages in the music, while many were in the wings of the stage, tuning and assembling instruments. Meanwhile, the chorus members were gathering in the seating area of the hall, facing the stage-an interesting set up for the chorus, which had been used to a placement behind the orchestra and soloists. Several video monitors allowed the chorus a front view of the Maestro, to which they had been accustomed, and the format created an intimate atmosphere that allowed the sound of both ensembles to interact.

The musicians gradually flowed into the hall, and the concentration became almost tangible as the performers focused on the task at hand. The moment came for the recording to begin, and we were ushered out of the auditorium along with the other non-performers. Everyone not included in the session waited anxiously outside the door, eager to catch the first strains of magic emanating from the hall . . .

Check next week for the second half of Portrait of a Recording: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.


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