One immediately sensed that the volume level in the lobby of the Tennessee Theatre at intermission of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concerts last week was quite a bit higher than usual following the occasion of the world premiere of Maestro Lucas Richman's new piano concerto, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: In Truth. "Abuzz" might be a good word to describe the chatter intensity, as in--"the lobby was abuzz" with comments flung here and there by both experienced listeners and those that merely know what they like; abuzz, because the work and the performance had engendered a lot of mostly positive opinions--and of those, mostly of surprise and delight that the new work was so accessible and entertaining. I can't honestly say I was surprised having heard Richman's smaller works over the years during his tenure in Knoxville, but I was struck by the boldness and complexity of the work.
Two days later on the Maryville College campus, I found composer and Grammy winner Richman, and composer and Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon, on the same stage for a program of music by contemporary American composers. While Richman and Higdon have drastic stylistic differences, the occasion did inspire some deeper thought on the topic of contemporary American music, its past, its current direction, and where those two composers fit in.
Richman's concerto is--as are all the other works of his I have heard--unabashedly tonal. While he does not shy away from atonality and dissonance for effect, those moments seem to exist as expressionistic side trips of disturbance, with the gravity of lyricism inevitably returning a passage to equilibrium. Richman's textural constructions are not consciously derivative, but one can't avoid hearing the stylistic references that have been absorbed, chewed-on, and reinterpreted, something not really surprising in a composer who has been immersed in them as a constantly working conductor. And, despite Richman's own programmatic explanations and descriptions of the thematic underpinnings, and the inclusion of "In Truth" in the title, the work ultimately succeeds on its ability to engage the listener abstractly with a balance of textures that is complex and enticing, but not esoteric. And, Richman knows a thing or two about theatre, specifically how to end a movement with attention-getting energy.
The concerto's three movements are pleasantly extroverted, with the piano and orchestra on equal footing. Instances in the first movement where the two seemed at cross-purposes were actually appealing and welcomed, for they always seemed to resolve themselves in intriguing textures. Likewise, the keyboard cadenza that opens the second movement begins gently, but the movement goes off on a tangent--an unexpectedly jazzy, motion-filled turn into what Richman described as "honky-tonk ragtime gone wrong."
Pianist Jeffrey Biegel's performance was marked by what seemed to be perfectly tuned phrasing that clearly demonstrated his confidence in the work and in the composer on the podium. Biegel's energy, emotion, and precision in the final movement came as no surprise.
In addition to the Richman concerto, the program of music by American composers also offered Samuel Barber's The School for Scandal Overture, Ferde Grofé's Mississippi Suite, and George Gershwin's An American in Paris. That final Gershwin work received a performance that was as stunningly effective as any I've heard recently.