There simply must be a mysterious quality to the air in downtown Knoxville in January. How else can one explain the fact that, over the last several years, the January concerts of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra—with guest conductors, no less—have ended up being arguably among the most accomplished and thrilling performances of the season?
Last January saw the audition concert of Aram Demirjian, who was subsequently selected as KSO’s new music director, and there were memorable Masterworks performances conducted by Sean Newhouse and Lawrence Loh in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Unfortunately, these notable January performances seem to draw sparse crowds; KSO regulars should know better by now.
Last week’s KSO Masterworks concerts at the Tennessee Theatre followed that pattern: Guest conductor Andrew Grams and the orchestra collaborated on a program of works by Smetana, Sibelius, and Dvořák—performances that projected deeply satisfying musical points of view and were delivered with an energy and clarity of purpose that produced a stunningly successful concert.
Grams set the tone for the evening with a humorous explanation of the opening work—Šárka, the third symphonic poem of Bedřich Smetana’s Má Vlast—that was an effective icebreaker. Exchanging the microphone for the baton, Grams warmed up the audience even further with the work’s addictive momentum and instrumental color.
The featured soloist of the evening was violinist Bella Hristova, who joined Grams and the orchestra for Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor. As Hristova launched into the Allegro moderato movement’s first theme, one immediately admired her immaculate intonation and technique, qualities that she maintained with vitality all the way to the finale of this longish concerto. That accuracy was the perfect underpinning for the work’s lush expansive melodies, which contrast with virtuosic string effects and subtle pianissimo moments. However, it was her ability as a storyteller—and the gorgeous tone from her 1655 Amati violin—that won over the audience. And that storytelling was accomplished with the simple sophistication of confident phrasing and presented with uncomplicated freshness.
Coincidentally, Grams was himself a violinist—trained in violin performance at the Juilliard School and a member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra from 1998 to 2004—before his transition to conducting. He seemed to sense the necessary ebb and flow of orchestral dynamics in the Sibelius that successfully support the soloist while still painting a vivid musical image.
With half the evening completed and the January phenomena of superlative performances intact, Grams and the orchestra returned from intermission and sealed the deal with the Dvořák Symphony No. 6 in D major. As the symphony is the least-often heard of the composer’s last four, there was considerable joy in hearing the work at all, much less in the hands of a conductor capable of urging a fine orchestra to what was a sublime performance.
Just as he had done in the Smetana, Grams took charge of the motion created by syncopated rhythms and repetitions, letting the interest build dynamically into the thematic material. By the finale movement, Grams and the orchestra had offered not only a beguiling take on rhythm and tempo but a solid lyricism, constructed of perfectly balanced woodwind melodic statements against drama in the strings. However, in the conclusion, Grams again worked the Dvořák rhythm to urge the audience forward in their seats—something they were all too happy to do.
A change is in the air for KSO’s Principal Quartet, and for the dedicated audiences of the Chamber Classics series. While the Bijou Theatre will continue to be the venue for the chamber orchestra performances in the series, this Sunday’s Principal Quartet concert will move to the Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall in the University of Tennessee’s Natalie L. Haslam Music Center for the sake of a more intimate environment.
Two important works from the string-quartet repertoire are on the program: Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in D major and Beethoven’s String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, one of the “Razumovsky” quartets.
The Principal Quartet consists of Gordon Tsai and Edward Pulgar (violins), Kathryn Gawne (viola), and Andy Bryenton (cello).
Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Quartet will play music by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky as part of the Chamber Classics series at the University of Tennessee’s Natalie L. Haslam Music Center on Sunday, Jan. 29, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.50-$35.
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