Strangely, it didn't really feel like the final concert of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra season last Thursday and Friday evenings--perhaps it was the weather. By this time in the spring, bare arms and summer colors are usually the rule rather than the exception in the Tennessee Theatre lobby. This is also the time of year for commencements, which also seemed appropriate last weekend--not the end of something, but rather, by definition, a spectacular beginning. In this case, Maestro Lucas Richman and the orchestra tackled a program of works that were tests--a final exam if you will--of stamina, precision, interpretation, and artistic achievement--and they aced it.
In many ways, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring on the second half of the concert was the perfect way to end a season because, like a commencement, it was a beginning. The music for the ballet that created such a stir 100 years ago in Paris stands as the most notable threshold work for entrance into 20th Century music. As a concert piece separated from the ballet, one is startled by how the score has held onto its modernity and visceral strength. And equally startling is recognizing the effect it has had on composers that followed, everyone from Ravel through 20th Century film composers to Leonard Bernstein.
It is also startling how difficult the work is--to perform, to conduct, and to write about. Clearly, orchestras do not take on The Rite of Spring lightly, even though the technical level of orchestral playing, worldwide, is much higher today than it was in 1913; the added woodwind and brass instrumental requirements are a factor, as well. In addition, the harmonic combinations, the complex rhythms, and constantly changing meter require precision while maintaining the important balance of earthy, human physicality and raw tonal emotions. In this regard, Richman and the orchestra succeeded brilliantly.
Richman's own work, Three Pieces for Cello and Orchestra, was, in a word--charming. With the addition of an opening movement, "Declaration," to previously premiered and performed movements, "Prayer" and "Freylach," the work becomes a cello concerto that should draw a lot of attention from orchestras and soloists in the future. On this concert, the cello soloist was Inbal Segev, a veteran performer (these days involved in the Amerigo Trio) with an innate gift of interpretation and a seemingly effortless playing style. Of course, the soft, velvety warmth of tone from her 17th Century Francesco Rugeri instrument was as rewarding as one would expect.
Equally appropriate for the closing concert was a concert-opener that has both an air of solemn nostalgia for the past and a bright, ebullient optimism for the future: Richard Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser. From the beautifully balanced and played opening passage of horn, clarinet, and bassoon, to the "Pilgrims' Chorus" theme by the trombones against dancing ornamentation of the strings, to the brass-heavy final chords, this was a goose-bump raising performance of one of the truly great opera overtures. [Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth is this Wednesday, May 22.]
This was an evening of solidity and also one of inspired performances--performances that will make the wait for September and the next KSO season all too long.