The final concert of the season for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra each May is, in may ways, like a commencement ceremony—it always seems to elicit a range of emotions in its audience. Varying degrees of nostalgia, reflection, and expectations for the future combine with anticipation for a concert intended as a musical exclamation point. All of that was noticeable in last weekend’s season finale at the Tennessee Theatre, but there were also specific indications that change will be a frequent topic for the orchestra in coming years.
Part of that change will be in the audience itself. One had only to look past the expected warm-weather attire of concertgoers traversing the Tennessee Theatre lobby to see deeper changes in the works among KSO’s audience. In addition to a broadening range of ages, one sensed an audience with more diverse musical sensibilities than in the past, some lured to the symphony for the first time, perhaps, by expectations of a fresh but sophisticated musical experience.
KSO music director Aram Demirjian’s program for the evening reflected change and risk-taking, and suggested an eclectic future direction for the orchestra. Building on the anchoring work, Beethoven’s thrilling Symphony No. 5, Demirjian filled out the bill with a fun and challenging contemporary work by 40-year-old American composer Mason Bates, a tone poem by Richard Strauss, and a work by the famous American film-score composer and conductor John Williams.
It is hyperbole to call Mason Bates a savior of classical music, as some music writers have done. But his blending of electronic sounds with traditional acoustic instruments is undeniably innovative and captivating. Mothership, from 2011, heard on this concert, uses an orchestra with expanded woodwind sections plus soloists and an electronic beat. The work was commissioned for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas, an online-auditioned orchestra of 101 musicians from 30 countries. The work’s opening section features improvised solos by instruments selected by the performing organization. In this KSO performance, the soloists were Christina Horn, of local ensemble Hudson K, on keytar (an electronic keyboard shaped and held like a guitar), and University of Tennessee music professor Jorge Vareigo on bass clarinet—both instruments textured and augmented by electronics.
One of history’s notable risk-takers was the trickster Till Eulenspiegel of German folklore. Richard Strauss’ tone poem from 1895, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”), condenses Till’s extensive, often off-color narrative to a relatively brief, musically programmatic description. The work was a sumptuous feast of instrumental textures for the KSO with expanded woodwind sections, all highlighted by several leitmotiv-like solos. Principal horn Jeffery Whaley offered up a velvety Till Eulenspiegel theme, while clarinets expressed the character’s mocking laughter. Guest concertmaster William Shaub gave the violin solo passage a wonderful ear-opening prominence.
Demirjian wrapped up the first half of the program with a delicious performance of John Williams’ Escapades, from his score for the film Catch Me If You Can. The work is, in essence, a concerto for alto saxophone, vibraphone, and bass, in a rhythmically complex jazz idiom that winds in and out as if navigating a labyrinth of dark streets. The saxophonist was Timothy McAllister, joined by KSO members Clark Harrell on percussion and Steve Benne on bass.
Finally, putting that exclamation point on the evening was a reassuring and euphoric performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, a work treasured by serious listeners for its coherent complexity and known to almost everyone else in western civilization by the opening passage’s statement of fate. Like most contemporary conductors, Demirjian took a substantial tempo throughout, knowing full well that Beethoven sings with vitality and timelessness when unburdened by the unnecessary ponderousness that had settled on it for so many years.
So, where is the KSO heading in the future? If this finale concert is any indication, the orchestra is broadening its programming horizons without forgetting the vastness of music history. But change requires both the courage to innovate and the wisdom to understand history. That next chapter begins in September.
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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