With the final concerts of Maestro Lucas Richman’s tenure with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra coming up in May, and the last nine months of guest conductor appearances completed last weekend, one is tempted to speculate on what audiences might expect next season as the six music-director candidates each make their case for the position. Under the circumstances, one could easily forgive the orchestra for being mired in confusion in performance, its ensemble togetherness and energy wavering under a cloud of uncertainty. Remarkably, though, the exact opposite thing has occurred—the KSO is now playing with a precision, artistry, and apparent joie de vivre that exceeds even the loftiest recent expectations.
That’s a bold statement. Validation of it came in last weekend’s concerts with guest conductor Vladimir Kulenovic, a concert that offered Bedrich Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”). Numerous factors figure into such outstanding performances, but it was clear that Kulenovic’s razor-edged precision and meticulous massaging of dynamics and textures aligned perfectly with a KSO that was intensely invested in a memorable showing. It is worth noting that Kulenovic conducted the Smetana and the Beethoven without a score, something that is indeed impressive on its face, but, in this case, had a deeper importance. It allowed the conductor to be a part of the orchestra and permitted his musical point of view to flow through the players, not just at them.
Starting with the Smetana, one was immediately impressed by the crispness and energy of the direction and the tight ensemble togetherness, most noticeably in the combined violin sections. Just as in the Beethoven later in the evening, the ensemble cohesiveness made each passage an event, and each change of dramatic mood, a new musical day. In a fresh, organic way, it felt as though one was hearing this familiar overture for the first time.
Pianist Antti Siirala joined Kulenovic and the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, the composer’s Op. 1. The work was first performed in 1892, when Rachmaninoff was 19 years old, but was later revised in 1917 into the work heard today. While the revision reflected the musical maturity and orchestration ability gained by the composer over 20 years, the work still pales by comparison with his Second and Third piano concertos. Nevertheless, it shows Rachmaninoff’s remarkable inventive personality in writing for the piano and for juxtaposing it against the orchestra in a consummately entertaining way.
Rather matter of factly but skillfully, Siirala explored the contrasts of the work’s density to its moments of translucent shimmer. The second movement’s solo section had a purposeful but meandering quality that leads the listener along without really being sure of the destination. In the Finale movement, Siirala moved between the moments of quirky, restive rhythms and the lyrical sweet spots with a silken touch. Although there seemed to be some visual cues that indicated the synchronization between the conductor and soloist might be an issue, they certainly didn’t result in audible distractions; Siirala and Kulenovic stayed the course and left us with a reassuringly jubilant close.
While the average listener will invariably place Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth symphonies among his most complex works—and they are—musicians probably agree that the Sixth, the “Pastoral,” has a degree of difficulty and depth that is not always apparent. Kulenovic’s approach to that work on the second half of the concert was to take a moderate tempo while still luxuriating in the delicious details of country life that Beethoven provides. Themes sprang forth with clarity and definition, like a peasant wagon crossing our path; the fourth-movement storm caught us by surprise, then retreated with the hymn-like suggestion of thanks.
On this trip to the country, Maestro Kulenovic was thankfully accompanied by some superb twittering cuckoos, chirping birds, dancing peasants, and overall sublime pastoral textures from KSO players Claire Chenette (oboe), Nicholas Johnson (flute), Gary Sperl (clarinet), Aaron Apaza (bassoon), and Jeffery Whaley (horn). And the beginning of that second movement, “Scene by the Brook,” opened with some of the most radiant and velvety ensemble playing from KSO violins heard all season.
While the anxiety level will inevitably rise as the KSO proceeds into the music-director selection process next season, last weekend’s performances proved audiences have nothing to fear—and clearly, a whole lot to gain.
Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.
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