With the inevitable letdown of the four month summer hiatus looming for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and its audiences, one naturally has high hopes for the final performances of the season. A bit of euphoria for a season well-accomplished would be nice, with some eager anticipation for the future thrown in for good measure. A bonus would be a finale in which performance elements--focus, energy, timing, interpretation, and exquisite playing--all converge at the same precise moment for an experience that is not only euphoric, but breathtaking. Last Friday evening's final concert of the 2013-14 season by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was definitely one of those experiences.
Although the evening didn't really need a theme, Maestro Lucas Richman found a handle among the works he had programmed: Beethoven's Overture to Fidelio, his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, and concluding with Dmitri Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. The theme was one of "struggle against adversity"--adversity which takes the form of political oppression in the fictional world of Fidelio and in the real life Stalinist world of Shostakovich. Beethoven's adversity was his increasing deafness, something which, historically, became a positive. With the first downbeat of the evening, though, themes evaporate in one's mind, leaving the absolute nature of music to be the storyteller.
Pianist Spencer Myer had the honor of the solo role in the Beethoven concerto, but the honor of hearing this pianist belonged to the audience by its conclusion. Myer's approach was determined, precise, and passionate without even the least hint of being forced or overly romanticized. His touch, just as I remembered it from his 2008 appearance with the orchestra in the Gershwin Concerto in F, was clean and innately sensitive to nuance. And rippling passages were gorgeously rounded and accomplished.
The slow movement--beautifully slow in this performance--is somewhat adversarial itself between the piano and orchestra; Myer and Maestro Richman worked together marvelously in handling the dynamics of the confrontations, executing a sloping arc with satisfying character. However, it was in the movement's poetic details of restraint juxtaposed against release, and in the delicate, subtle colorations, that Myer excelled in raising a few goose bumps.
One could not have chosen a better finale work, for this season at least, than the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony. In it, the composer let loose the personal drama he had lived in under Stalin's gaze and turned much of that bitterness into musical power. On an orchestral level, this was the most focused, balanced, and incisive performance that I had heard from the KSO all season. Richman's particular affinity for 20th Century music was readily apparent, as well, in dynamic gestures that were bold without being overly brassy.
Another reason for the Shostakovich as a season closer is the abundance of exposed passages for both sections and individuals in the orchestra. The entire string section, already a star this season under Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz, was remarkable in its ability to achieve those cutting mid-20th-Century string textures, yet still contrast them with lushness and warmth. In exposed passages, piccolo (Cynthia D'Andrea along with Jill Bartine), flute (Ebonee Thomas), clarinet (Gary Sperl), English horn (Elizabeth Telling), bassoon (Aaron Apaza), and horn (Jeffery Whaley), were brilliantly rendered as descriptive characters in a very compelling story. In fact, the ensemble nature of the woodwind sections as a whole was impressive.
Alas, that four month wait for the 2014-15 season will be long indeed. The season, Lucas Richman's last in Knoxville, will open on September 18-19 with works by Torke (Bright Blue Music), Hindemith (Symphonic Metamorphosis), and Brahms (Piano Concerto No. 1).