In his introductory remarks to last weekend’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Masterworks concert at the Tennessee Theatre, KSO music director Aram Demirjian admitted that planning a program of American music for the week between Veterans Day and Thanksgiving had seemed to make perfect sense. Then he described the painful moment when he realized that he had overlooked the fact that the U.S. presidential election would fall nine days before the concerts. With the election turning a spotlight on real questions of America’s future, Demirjian concluded with the moderating hope that music could somehow help us find common ground and assuage anxious fear.
Quite coincidentally, Demirjian had as his concert opener the perfect icebreaking metaphor for our national condition—Charles Ives’ Variations on “America.” Based on the tune also known as “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” the work was composed for pipe organ by the 17-year-old Ives in 1891. The William Schuman-orchestrated version, heard on this concert, has opened this snarky, enjoyable piece to much wider appreciation. The work’s whimsical variations run the gamut from mock hymn-like solemnity to fugue-like constructions, comical barbershop and Spanish castanet flavors, and angry, bitter dissonance, all wrapped up by an ironically pompous conclusion that never manages to take itself all that seriously. By Friday evening’s performance, this energetic work found the perfect blend of tempo, pacing, and attitude from the KSO.
One of the major virtues of this concert, however, beyond its interesting selection of American works, was the indication that Demirjian and the orchestra are making positive adjustments to each other. By Friday evening’s performance, the thorny balance and tempo issues that had troubled some earlier Masterworks concerts were replaced with the sensitive, solid ensemble playing that KSO audiences have come to expect.
A good example of this was found in the second work on the program, William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American Symphony). Premiered in 1931 by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the work was the first symphony by an African-American composer performed by a major orchestra. Feeling somewhat cinematic in a revealing construction of four movements—“Longing,” “Sorrows,” “Humor,” and “Aspirations”—the symphony oozes a blues flavor, seasoned with jazz rhythms and diverse instrumental textures. Those diverse textures provided opportunity for some beautifully performed solo turns by KSO players: Ayca Yayman on English horn, Claire Chenette on oboe, Johanna Gruskin on flute, Phillip Chase Hawkins on trumpet, and Gary Sperl on clarinet.
A relatively new work, from 2011, opened the second half of the program: Jeff Midkiff’s Mandolin Concerto “From the Blue Ridge.” A true mandolin virtuoso, Midkiff himself performed as soloist.
With a desire to “say something with the mandolin on a symphonic scale,” Midkiff created an engaging work that brought the two distinct sounds together in an evocative mixture of Appalachian music sensibilities. There was much to be admired in the piece, specifically its genuineness and the absence of pastoral clichés. The third movement, lively and upbeat, was practically a road map through the bluegrass country of southwestern Virginia. Notable here was an exposed violin passage by concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz in true “fiddle music” style and color.
Closing out the evening was Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, a work that is justifiably hailed as the quintessence of American music, or at least the America we dream of being. Just as in the Still symphony, I was struck by the reclaimed ensemble sensitivity shown by Demirjian and the orchestra in sculpting phrasing and dynamics with attention to both minute details and the big picture.
Demirjian paired the performance of Appalachian Spring with projected images from the Knoxville Museum of Art’s collection of paintings evocative of Southern life. While such pairings, carefully programmed, can be enormously effective and poignant, doing so creates additional and alternative storylines to the music. The danger is that the two compete unnecessarily for the audience’s attention, which was the case here. Nevertheless, this was a quietly euphoric performance of Appalachian Spring—just what an anxious nation needed.
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