Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Putting Some English on the Clayton Concerts

There’s a big old sleigh down at the Civic Auditorium, and the gifts it brings are many. The Go! Contemporary Danceworks, the Webb School’s Madrigal Singers, Church Street United Methodist Church’s Treble Choir, UT’s Herald Trumpets, and of course, the Knoxville Choral Society will all join the KSO in Lucas Richman’s final Clayton Holiday Concert. Such an assemblage of performers is gathering to bringest thou an Olde English Yuletide program for four shows, this Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 pm, with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3.

Last year’s Celtic shows were a major success. By tapping the music of another of the British Isles this year, we can see the astonishing difference in the music and tradition of cultures that are just a few hundred miles apart.

It’s always a treat to hear a carol you’ve never heard before, and there are a few for me this year. One selection, Pastime with Good Company, is said to have been written by Henry VIII. Yea, verily, I am pleased to hear both it and ‘Tis the Time of Yuletide Glee, a madrigal by Thomas Morley (a Renaissance composer we studied in Music History class), whose work I had never heard live before. But, soft! Charles Dickens makes his presence felt a couple times, too, via the song I Like Life (from the 1970 film Scrooge) and Alan Menken’s God Bless Us Everyone from the 2004 TV film version of A Christmas Carol.

Although they are not technically “Olde English,” we shall also present music by Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst and John Rutter. Britten’s carol Hodie Christus natus est is set for treble voices and harp; it’s just magical. There’s a lot of magic going on there. Prithee, get thee hence to the Civic this weekend and make merry.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

An Interview with a KSO member from the Days of Bertha Walburn Clark

Kathryn Moore, age 99, is the oldest living former member of the KSO. Under the direction of her teacher and KSO founder, Bertha Walburn Clark, she began lessons at age 8 and unofficially joined the orchestra at age 12. When she was 18 and just graduated from Central High School, Kathryn officially joined the KSO under Bertha's direction (around 1938).

Her total amount of time playing in the KSO was 49 years, under the leadership of at least four music directors. Kathryn's husband, General Hugh Moore passed away during World War II and she never remarried. During her career as an English professor at UT, she continued playing in the Knoxville Symphony. 

A few weeks ago, KSO Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz paid Kathryn a visit. He played several Bach selections for her enjoyment. She was incredulous at how talented he is at the young age of 27. She reflected on the last Concertmaster she played with, Bill Starr. She and Gabe compared their violins, though she admitted hers had not been played in 25 years or more. Gabe asked her permission to play a tune on it, despite its having a broken string, She couldn't believe it still worked, and that "the termites hadn't carried it away." It was a special visit for everyone involved. Here is a brief video of the encounter.


Thanks to Dan McGehee for arranging the visit, and to KSO Director of Communications Rachel Dellinger for taking the pictures and video, and for providing all the "facts and figures."

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Two Weekends of Nutcracker Ballet

The Appalachian Ballet Company will once again (for the 41st year in a row!) dance Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker to the accompaniment of the KSO this weekend in Knoxville and next Saturday in Maryville. Knoxville shows will be THIS Saturday night at 8:00 and Sunday afternoon at 2:00 at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium, and Maryville’s shows will be at the Clayton Center at 2:00 and 8:00 NEXT Saturday. There are many new dancers and new choreographies in this year’s production.

The Nutcracker is a time-honored tradition worldwide, and its music is some of Tchaikovsky’s best, although he himself astoundingly was not particularly thrilled with it. Composed to be half of a double-bill with his one-act opera Iolanta, the ballet was not a work of which the composer felt proud, compared to the opera. History has certainly proven him wrong!

We don’t anticipate any technical issues or glitches with the ballet. Other companies have had their share of misfortunes, providing a litany of examples from which to learn. Matthew Carter, Ballet Master of Ballet Nebraska, shared a few on his bio for that company’s website...
Once, in Pennsylvania, the orchestra light blew a fuse during a live performance. I was inside an enormous Nutcracker head during the Battle scene. The orchestra stopped playing, but I didn’t know exactly what had happened at first, since hearing and vision are muffled inside those things! I thought maybe I’d gone deaf or something! I kept going. We completed the Battle scene in silence; the fuse was fixed before the Snow Queen’s entrance, and the dancers saved the day! 
I was also performing in a “cafetorium” (school auditorium/cafeteria) once in California. We had began our Snow pas de deux when M&M’s and french fries started falling on our heads! Apparently the janitor had put the lunch sweepings in the wrong container! It’s hard to remain glamorous in that sort of situation, but we did. 
In another production, I was the Prince sitting with Clara in the throne for Act II. There were little Pages who sat on the throne steps during Act II and departed after the Waltz of the Flowers. One little girl had forgotten to switch her position during the Act, so when she got up to leave her legs had fallen asleep and she couldn’t walk straight. She wobbled, grasped the back drop, and did other crazy movements before the Dew Drop Fairy came back out and helped her off the stage…
Larry Pech, Ballet Master of the San Francisco ballet, also speaks of a near-tragedy in a 1990 Nutcracker production there...
Pech beat lymphoma, but his principal dancer position at the San Francisco Ballet was not waiting for him when he returned. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson had qualms about hiring a dancer with a compromised spine and instead offered him a job as principal character dancer – a position emphasizing acting and pantomime that is often reserved for a dancer or instructor in his or her 50s or older. Pech, however, was just 30. And a particularly disastrous experience in a 1990 Nutcracker show led him to believe he ought to seek more in life. 
Roughly a year after he'd danced the most challenging parts San Francisco Ballet had to offer, Pech found himself in a student matinee, portraying Herr Drosselmeyer, the magical godfather who presents Clara with the nutcracker. Rather than dancing, his most agile moves were reserved for piloting a golf cart decorated to resemble a massive swan, in which he ferried Clara and the young prince into the land of snow. But then, above the familiar refrains of Tchaikovsky's hypnotic score, Pech heard a series of terrifying cracks.  
He glanced upwards just in time to notice the "two-ton Christmas tree that served as the centerpiece of the set" come loose from its moorings and crash to the ground. The massive evergreen thudded to the stage just behind the golf cart; the resultant shockwaves sent the swan lurching forward and a gust of wind set the orchestra's scores swirling about the theatre. The curtain abruptly fell to the accompaniment of hundreds of mortified children in the audience wailing in horror. Right then and there, Pech made a career choice: "I'll be damned if I overcome cancer and get killed by a Christmas tree." 
He resigned from the ballet shortly thereafter.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Getting Around in December

The KSO is all over town(s) this December, with Storytime concerts continuing, and the KSO Chamber Orchestra traveling “over the river and through the woods” to Concerts in the Community in Harrogate and Dandridge. Since winter decided to start abruptly just before Thanksgiving this year, we’ve all gotten a head start on that “folks dressed up like Eskimos” thing.

This week starts off with the KSO Storytime quartet (Rachel Loseke and Ikuko Koizumi, violins; Bill Pierce, viola; Ihsan Kartal, cello) playing concerts at the Knox County Public Library’s Karns branch on Wednesday, Dec. 3 at 11 am. The theme of this year’s Storytimes is “Boom, Fizz, Read!” and features Eric Carle’s Very Quiet Cricket, Phil Cummings and Nina Rycroft’s Boom Bah, (sounds like the opposite of “very quiet”) and Rattletrap Car by Phyllis Root. Geared towards pre-school-age children and their parents, these concerts will be repeated at the Powell, Halls, Norwood, Carter and Cedar Bluff branches through the month of December. Click here to see the complete schedule.

The whole family will enjoy holiday and light classics at the upcoming KSO appearances in Harrogate at Lincoln Memorial University for two shows on Thursday, Dec. 4 at 4:00 and 7:30. Highlights include the Tri-State Community Chorus joining us on works by Rutter and Vivaldi, and KSO principal clarinetist Gary Sperl performing a movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. This concert will be repeated the next evening at the First Baptist Church of Dandridge at 7:00, to my knowledge the KSO’s first ever safari to Dandridge.

Next weekend comes the Nutcracker- stay tuned for more!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

We Sail the Ocean Blue

Now that the gales of November have come early, and hopefully gone, we can perhaps have some smooth sailing for the upcoming Knoxville Opera Company’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s nautical comedy H. M. S. Pinafore, coming up this Friday at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 at the Tennessee Theatre.

Arthur Sullivan serves as one of three English composers of any renown linking the English Baroque of Purcell and Handel (ca. 1700) with late-Romantic bad boys Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams, etc. (ca. 1900).  Only the music of William Boyce (1711-1789) and John Field (1782-1837) have had anything resembling staying power on a popularity list, and had you heard of them?  Not that the lot of them otherwise were bad composers, there just hasn’t been much call for them.

Sullivan’s collaborations with dramatist W. S. Gilbert, known as the Savoy Operas for the theatre that would eventually be built to stage them, have had a lasting appeal for their deft mix of silliness and passion.  British and American audiences flocked to see light opera that originated in English, opera that “spoke their language.”  That was my attraction to the music as a child, playing my parents LPs and coming to accept the complex English sentence structure as normal.  Another spin-off from this operetta is this jaw-dropping rewording of I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General by comic singer Tom Lehrer: the entire Table of Elements, as it existed (102 elements) when the song was recorded in 1959.

Included in this production is an aria entitled I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls from the only known Irish opera, The Bohemian Girl by M. W. Balfe. You may have heard this version by Enya; I used to play it for our children at bedtime.  Our soprano, Donata Cucinotta, will not put you to sleep, I assure you.  Titles of numbers in the operetta are actually text cues from the dialogue. There are some unusual ones, such as Kind Captain, I’ve Important information, Sir Joseph’s Barge is Seen, and But Tell Me Who’s the Youth. Maritime slapstick and witty wordplay are all over this production. If you need a good laugh, you’re gonna get it here.

And I know some of are you are curious, so I'll just tell you, free of charge, that the English pop singer Gilbert O'Sullivan was not born with that name. He changed it thereto in 1967 on the advice of his manager, but he was born Raymond Edward O'Sullivan.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


This Thursday and Friday nights it’s the supersized KSO in a blockbuster concert with guest soprano Emily Birsan, at 7:30 at the Tennessee Theatre.

Verdi knew how soprani could sound. It is just thrilling to hear his sequence Ah, fors’รจ lui/Sempre libera  from La traviata from somewhere besides the orchestra pit! So THAT’S how it sounds!? Add to that Puccini’s Oh, mia babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi, Caro nome from Rigoletto, and an orchestral arrangement of Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock” courtesy of Karl Reineke, and your dreams of virtuoso soprano singing will come true. Gary Sperl will add a beautiful clarinet obligato to the Schubert, bringing a chamber music classic to a new life on a large stage. Ms. Birsan has a powerful but sweet accuracy to her singing that is breathtaking.

The second half of the program will be a thrilling sonic adventure, the KSO’s first ever performance of Richard Strauss’ final tone poem, “An Alpine Symphony.” Maestro Richman had another Strauss “first” for the KSO with Aus Italien in April of 2004, on the way to a complete cycle of the must-see Strauss tone poems. I am honored to play this work, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of the members of the KSO. It features a gi-normous orchestra including a host of brass which the stage can scarcely hold, a wind machine, a heckelphone, tenor tubas, (or “tenah tubers,” as they say in Maine...) AND plenty of cowbells. The script is one hike through the mountains, dawn to dusk. The title “Alpine Symphony” needs not refer exclusively to the Alps– the Smokies, Tetons, Urals, or Andes could easily be called to mind.

This is not the Strauss of the Blue Danube or Die Fledermaus, contemporary with Verdi; that was Johann. Richard Strauss came somewhat later and is unrelated, working around the time of Puccini. A master orchestrator, Richard (pronounced “REE-card”) regales us with musical depictions of waterfalls, pastures, dead-end trails, brambles, and the most intense musical downpour you shall ever experience. While practicing some of these difficult “waterfall” and “cloudburst” passages, I am reminded of what Strauss himself said about them: “when you’re falling down a flight of stairs, you’re bound to miss a couple steps.” If you like brass, you don’t want to miss this, but more importantly, it’s just a FUN piece to play and hear played.

John Muir said it best: “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Come climbing with the KSO!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Fun with the Youth Orchestras at the Tennessee Theatre

If it’s the second Monday in November, it must be time for ensembles from the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra Association to play at the Tennessee Theatre! More than 300 talented players ranging from elementary to high school age will light up the stage of the Tennessee at 7:00 Monday night. (TONIGHT!) This concert is FREE.

Erin Archer’s ultra-charming Preludium Orchestra will “Make a Joyful Noise” and play some Vivaldi. Nina Missildine will lead the Philharmonia group through music of Sibelius, Yamada and Sieving. (Hmm, so far the conductors are violists...) The Sinfonia Orchestra, under the baton of KSYOA Manager Kathy Hart, will be playing Khatchaturyan’s Sabre Dance, Mike Forbes’ Dance of the Trolls (which depicts trolls in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin), and Mozart’s Overture to the Impresario, arranged by Frackenpohl. You may remember Frackenpohl from my post entitled “Composers with Funny Names” from last summer.

Dr. Wesley Baldwin’s Youth Chamber Orchestra will back up UT Assistant Professor of Clarinet Victor Chavez, soloist in Johann Melchior Molter’s 4th Clarinet Concerto. They group will also play two movements from Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, which, trust me, ain’t so simple. The final group, the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra, will play Dvorak’s Carnival Overture and the finale from his Symphony From the New World, with James Fellenbaum on the podium.

Speaking of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, here's something intriguing from there-- a Mustard Museum.

And here are a couple of dedicatees for the Forbes Dance of the Trolls...