It goes without saying that Knoxville Symphony Orchestra music director Lucas Richman loves music for the theatre and film--or at least the theatricality of it. The orchestra's two collaborations with the Clarence Brown Theatre (Amadeus and Sweeney Todd) are certainly evidence of that fact, as was their journey into the theatre music of Leonard Bernstein last Thursday and Friday with the inclusion in the Masterworks concert of the Candide Suite from Bernstein's 1956 operetta. Sadly and somewhat mysteriously, some KSO subscribers and other attendees visibly opted out of attending this concert (a concert that also included Bizet's youthful Symphony in C and Richman's own Kol Nidre) for reasons not readily apparent. I can only say to those who missed it--you chose poorly.
Richman gathered some familiar voices (and some unfamiliar ones) for the Candide Suite, a collection of the operetta's invigorating overture and highlighted "arias" and chorus numbers all connected by an entertaining narrative explaining the globe-hopping, epically convoluted plot. The five performers, all excellent both vocally and dramatically, were: Jeff Austin (CBT's Sweeney Todd) covering the narrator, Dr. Pangloss, and Ragotski; the two "leads"--Dustin Peterson as Candide and Amy Maples as Cunegonde; Karen Nickell as the Old Lady; and Boris Van Druff who took the three smaller roles of the Governor, Maximilian, and the Crook. Choral work was provided by the Knoxville Chamber Chorale.
Peterson and Maples, previously unknown to this reviewer, were delightful finds and most definitely two young singers to keep an eye on. Although the role of Candide is officially a tenor role, my guess is that Peterson will perhaps find himself in demand, sooner or later, for high baritone roles as well. Maples' strong mid-range made her leaps into gorgeous coloratura heights all the more surprising and thrilling.
Van Druff, last seen as Pirelli in CBT's Sweeney Todd, is certainly finding himself on the list of notable comic singers. Nickell, well known to Knoxville audiences for her velvety mezzo voice, turned in a wonderful "I Am Easily Assimilated"-- and demonstrated the solid stage veteran that she is by turning a benign wardrobe malfunction into interesting stage business.
On a technical note--I am generally not a fan of audio voice reinforcement, especially in acoustically-rich concert hall settings. However, in this case, the use of body microphones made the dramatization work. In the Tennessee Theatre-- an otherwise magnificent space noted for its resonant warmth--the stage apron, beyond the proscenium arch outside the orchestra shell, is the least acoustically perfect spot in the theatre. While all of the singers were certainly strong enough to project, the use of microphones allowed them to use the apron freely, get the lyrics across, and allowed Richman and the orchestra to be unrestrained in volume and dynamics. And, they weren't.
Successful performances of the 17 year old Georges Bizet's Symphony in C manage to balance the formal structure with a devil-may-care energetic ebullience--something Richman and the orchestra nailed. In a few places, though, particularly in the first movement, the energy overwhelmed precision and crispness a bit. The second movement (Adagio) features the oboe from beginning to end--and it was beautifully and poignantly played with wonderful detail by Phylis Secrist. The third movement bounded about, pushing and pulling, while the final allegro vivace was exactly that, an addictive, tangy, and effervescent glass of soda pop.
Richman opened the evening with his own work for strings, Kol Nidre, a setting of the traditional Jewish High Holiday prayer. Richman has dedicated the performances to the memory of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, murdered in Pakistan in 2002, who was a youth orchestra violin colleague. The emotional solemnity of the work, not to mention the depth and brilliance of the string sonority, was somewhat reminiscent of Barber's Adagio.