What is even more powerful than a snowstorm? Apparently, in Knoxville, it is the fear of a snowstorm. Many of the usual Knoxville Symphony Orchestra audience members who would have normally jammed the Tennessee Theatre for an important concert surrendered to excessive caution and stayed home last week. As it happened, however, those dedicated music lovers who did turn out were treated to the most articulate and impassioned Masterworks Series performance by the orchestra so far this season.
Taking the baton for this concert was the 29-year-old Aram Demirjian, the third of six guest conductors vying for the vacant position of KSO’s music director and principal conductor. Demirjian, who is currently the associate conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, scored high marks for choosing a compelling and diverse program—a reverse chronological journey through works by John Adams, György Ligeti, Max Bruch, and Ludwig van Beethoven. And for those tasked with judging the candidates on their skill in communicating with the audience, Demirjian offered a reassuring, intelligent, and engaging preface to the evening’s music.
Having checked off a box or two on the metaphorical audience scorecard, Demirjian launched into John Adams’ Lollapalooza, a short opener piece from 1995—and one not without its risks. Happily and rhythmically, the work belches and snorts brass and percussion statements in repetitive patterns, all the while dancing a bit caustically with pungent strings. The work is a beat- and measure-counting exercise for musicians, but one that the orchestra pulled off without serious incident.
Following the Adams piece, Demirjian took up Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, a four-movement concerto for orchestra from his early period in 1950s Communist Hungary. The work, bristling with Romanian folk-song idioms, is surprisingly lyrical compared to the composer’s later works. Only in the final movement does Ligeti reveal the tangles and thorns of modernist tonality that he would later be known for. Before that, however, its distinctive orchestration provided a lot of exposed moments for instrumentalists. Principal horn Jeffery Whaley led the way, followed by a beautifully haunting moment from English horn player Ayca Yayman. Contrasts came from principal oboe Claire Chenette and concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz.
Violinist Philippe Quint has been dividing his time recently between his tango nuevo ensemble, the Quint Quintet, and his numerous solo appearances in the warhorses of Romantic-period violin concertos. As such, he was an ideal choice for guest violinist in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, a frequent vehicle for him and one that he recorded a couple of years ago along with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Romances.
In the Bruch, we saw Demirjian’s skill as a conductor emerge as he carefully sculpted an exquisite balance between the orchestra and Quint’s gorgeous vocal-like phrasing and tone. Both violinist and conductor understood perfectly the alternating bold violin and orchestral statements that inhabit the opening movement. However, the second Adagio movement carries the Romantic heart of the concerto where Quint’s judicious balance of lushness and melody was poignant and striking.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a work that is less about beautifully crafted melodies and more about movement and rhythm. In fact, compared to Beethoven’s other symphonies, the themes are relatively simple and mostly exist to give tangible form to the symphony’s pulse and drive.
Tempo and the motion of volume dynamics are everything for the second movement, an Allegretto, one that Demirjian built carefully and strategically around the opening and closing A minor chords that lead rather than resolve. For the final movement, Demirjian injected a sense of controlled wildness into the orchestra, one that underlined the sense of spinning and swirling in what can only be termed a musical illusion. That illusion made the sudden final statement all the more startling.
In what is turning out to be a season of surprises, Demirjian made a compelling case for his candidacy. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Weather emergencies, whether real or imagined, can draw us inside ourselves, to a place where anxiety and calm coexist. And in this case, it was a place where real music was made by the KSO.
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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