It's actually quite difficult to define what makes a great performance--merely citing technical details falls short and the proper adjectives can always be argued and nitpicked. Inarguable, though, is that we sense a great performance viscerally, deep inside, when we hear one. It grows beyond the music, becoming a living, breathing, organic entity, full of human perfections and imperfections. I found Sunday's performance of Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 by pianist David Brunell and the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra under James Fellenbaum to be one of those performances.
This is not to say that Sunday's afternoon performance did not have some lapses of a togetherness nature, but tiny moments of imprecision were totally irrelevant in the grand scheme of the impressive presentation. Brunell's playing demonstrated a bold point-of-view that sparked with electric energy and threw off beams of vitality. The strength was tempered, though, with a certain touch, particularly in the Andante movement, that was velvety and nuanced. The final bars of that movement were as gentle and introspective as one could have hoped for. The Presto; Molto Allegro e vivace finale was nicely magical, brisk and punctuated with its textural hints of a Midsummer Night's Dream.
Energy of a more earthly kind also haunted Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, which closed the program. The suite was taken from the ballet score that Stravinsky wrote for Sergei Diaghilev based on works by the Baroque composer Giovanni Pergolesi. Of course, 20th Century music history has revealed that several of the works attributed to Pergolesi were not his, and Diaghilev may have known this. Or not, it doesn't really matter.
What did matter was that Maestro Fellenbaum created a beautifully balanced presentation, rich with the 17th Century themes and flavor, but that also sparkled with Stravinsky's 20th Century harmonic tangents, rhythmic points, and interpretative twists.
Even more than the Stravinsky, Respighi's delightful Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1 that opened the second half of the program, is an exercise in voluntary naiveté, much like cinema--we willingly choose to ignore the fact that the experience is being filtered, in the extreme, through a modern lens. In that way, Respighi's often lush work is reminiscent of Renaissance dances, but the orchestration and the instruments themselves are, of course, anything but Renaissance. Fellenbaum and the ensemble gave that orchestration a nice crispness with flashes of modern humor, reminding us of the past, but allowing us to remain comfortably seated in our harmonic modernity.