At first glance, at least, the program for last weekend’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Masterworks concerts didn’t reveal any particular reasons to expect anything out of the ordinary. On the bill were the usual guest soloist performing a canonical concerto and the orchestra delving into a well-known ballet-derived work of French Impressionism from the early 20th century. The nicely sized audience, though, saw the signs and possibilities that intrigue was afoot, and found themselves in the midst of a very compelling musical adventure for the evening.
The first sign came with the guest soloist, Polish-American pianist Adam Golka, who had previously performed with the KSO in March 2010. On that occasion, the then-22-year-old soloist impressed with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, in a performance that earned him an extremely positive mention in my review: “a remarkably introspective connection to the work and a refreshingly audacious interpretation.” Subsequently, I chose him as my Most Memorable Solo Performance in the annual best-of list for 2010.
For last weekend’s concerts, Golka turned to Frédéric Chopin and one of the composer’s few orchestral works, the Piano Concerto in E minor. The introspection that Golka showed seven years ago had matured even further and now flowed to the surface of his performance as well thought-out, articulate phrasing. Bonuses were his delivery of crystalline tonal clarity, smile-inducing details, and a dramatic sense of dynamics. This was not an over-romanticized or muscular take on the concerto, but rather one on the cerebral—yet entertaining—side of things. Perhaps more Mozart than Beethoven, but in the best possible sense.
Friday evening, as it turned out, was Golka’s 30th birthday. In return for the gift of a long and substantial ovation following the Chopin, Golka offered the audience an encore—the world premiere of a very short composition given to him as a birthday gift from his composer friend Michael Brown. Golka then followed it with Chopin’s familiar “Black Keys Etude,” with a tiny suggestion of “Happy Birthday” thrown in for laughs.
The second sign that the concert was taking a unique twist came after intermission, when KSO music director Aram Demirjian took the stage to explain the complications of what would be happening with the next works: the overture and “Nadir’s Romance” from Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers and Night of the Flying Horses, an excerpt from Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra by contemporary Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. Because Golijov had used the Bizet aria as a theme, the orchestra would be performing the three pieces as one, without a pause. Demirjian felt that such a treatment might help audiences ease into contemporary music.
Demirjian’s experiment worked perfectly, although he probably shouldn’t have worried. The Golijov work, with Yiddish music textures and racing tempos, was irresistible and quite accessible. What is worth worrying about is whether audiences will actually get to hear much of Golijov’s music in the future. The remarkable composer has gained the reputation for not delivering on commissions, and, in 2012, found himself embroiled in accusations of plagiarism.
If there had been any doubt remaining that the evening was destined to be a winner, the final work on KSO’s program—Maurice Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé—erased it. The suite, taken from music for the ballet created for Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, uses a large orchestra, heavy with extra woodwinds and percussion. As a poetic evocation of nature, the work exemplifies musical impressionism and, as such, was a major textural feast for Demirjian and the players in the KSO.
Softly gurgling brooks are created in the woodwinds and harps, birdcalls by piccolos and violins. The muted light of dawn surrenders to sunrise, described in a luxurious melodic theme that drenches the listener with sunlight. Ravel builds the rich textures with verdant swaths of musical color all the way to the climax, the ultimate romantic embrace in musical form. This is music that simply must be heard live to be fully appreciated.
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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