It seemed quite natural that the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, having survived a season of episodic appearances by guest conductors vying for the position of music director, would end that season with music from Richard Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, arguably the greatest episodic musical journey of all time. Although the current journey by the orchestra will officially end when KSO’s selection committee announces its pick for the orchestra’s eighth music director, a new journey will then begin. As expected, the orchestra’s Masterworks performances at the Tennessee Theatre last week revealed much about where KSO is now and what the future may bring.
This season-closer was placed in the immensely capable hands of the KSO’s resident conductor, James Fellenbaum, who has filled all the concert spots this season that weren’t taken by one of the candidates, including all of the Chamber Classics concerts at the Bijou Theatre. Just as he had done with the season opener in September, Fellenbaum gave the audience a superb program last week, filled with clever moments and solidly captivating performances. And, as evidence of his command of both the material and the orchestra, he conducted the Wagner and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 without a score.
Fellenbaum’s choice for the Wagner was The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure by the Dutch arranger Henk de Vlieger. The one-hour orchestral distillation of the roughly 16 hours of music from the four operas—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämerung—unobtrusively combines excerpts and Wagnerian leitmotivs into an ingeniously cohesive piece that is remarkably faithful to the texture of the operas. Aiding the audience’s comprehension were projected supertitles that announced the 14 sections and provided themes and story details along the way.
The orchestration—heavy in woodwinds and brass, including four special “Wagner” tubas—consumed KSO’s full roster, plus many extras summoned from elsewhere for the occasion. At the pinnacle of many individual performances were the heroic “Siegfried” horn themes, played radiantly and majestically offstage by KSO principal horn Jeffery Whaley.
Although Ring purists may dismiss an orchestra-only compression such as de Vlieger’s, the work makes Wagner’s musical and dramatic arc over the four operas accessible, beginning with low strings in the depths of the Rhine and quietly ending back there, three operas later, as the gold ring returns to the Rhinemaidens and the river. The problem, as Fellenbaum discovered, was having a brief moment to savor the completion of the arc before the wild ovation consumed the orchestra, just as the fires consumed the Hall of the Gods in Valhalla.
Fellenbaum opened the concert with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, one of four overtures that the composer tried out for his only opera, Fidelio. The work’s dramatic richness and textural depth—and its length—place it more in the category of a symphonic poem than an overture, which is almost certainly the reason Beethoven eventually put it aside. A nice ear-opening touch, in a performance that had many, was placing principal trumpet Phillip Chase Hawkins at the rear of the balcony for the offstage trumpet announcement that, in the opera, indicates Florestan’s freedom from prison.
Coming between the Beethoven and the Wagner was the Tennessee premiere of Dreamtime Ancestors, a new work by the contemporary American composer Christopher Theofanidis. The work was commissioned by the New Music for America Consortium, a group of mid-size orchestras (including KSO) that have joined together to promote new works by American composers. Dreamtime Ancestors was inspired by Australian aboriginal creation myths.
The work is in three through-composed sections; each begins with a theme that then develops through iteration. While it has intriguing depth and interesting instrumental color, harmonic references, and rhythmic variety, its dreamtime connections are hazily unfocused, if not downright esoteric, even as musical abstraction. Maybe that was precisely the composer’s intention.
While KSO’s season finale always invokes wistful moments, this particular moment is a rare threshold occasion for the orchestra as it waits to greet a new music director and to embrace its future. If the next five years are as musically productive for the orchestra as the last five, then Knoxville and the KSO audience will truly be in for something amazing.
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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