Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Czech Out Our January Concert!

Our busy January continues with Masterworks on Thursday and Friday, January 19 and 20, 7:30, with guest Maestro Andrew Grams leading the orchestra through a Smetana tone poem and Dvorak's 6th Symphony in D.  Our guest violin soloist will be Bella Hristova, performing Sibelius' jaw-dropping Violin Concerto. All three works were written between 1875 and 1903, but they couldn't be more different in content and scope.

The concert will start with Šárka from Bedrich Smetana's Má vlast “(My Homeland).” Although this is also Czech music, or more specifically Bohemian, it is an entirely different animal.  Smetana was a very successful opera composer, having achieved success early on in Gothenburg, Sweden, of all places.  The Czech legend of the female warrior behind Šárka is charming, rustic mythology at its best.  Listen for the incongruous low bassoon notes depicting the snoring of the warrior men.  The KSO last played Smetana's music in April of 2015, his Overture to The Bartered Bride, and the rhapsodic onslaught of notes continues where that work left off.

The Dvorak 6th which closes the concert is actually a three-in-one package deal.  Therein Dvorak happily clicks the “Brahms 2” and “Beethoven 8” filters on his mental search engine, and the synthesis of these two works with his own unique genius adds up to rich symphonic experience on a par with his “New World” Symphony.  The last four Dvorak symphonies are all timeless classics; it's important to acknowledge that Dvorak is about way more than just his 9th.  The second movement Adagio is pure orchestrating genius, succeeding where Brahms had sometimes failed at balancing heart and mind.  The “dance movement” of this symphony is a furiant; a Czech dance that alternates triple and 2/4 rhythms, sort of like “America” from West Side Story, only backwards- and 80 years earlier.  If you like Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, then step right up, because he is at the top of his game here.

No winter weather is in the forecast, so come on down to the Tennessee Theatre later this week!  Look out for the new traffic pattern on State Street, is it seems to be two-way north of the new stop sign on Union Avenue.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Big Band Music from the 18th Century

PHEW!  The sudden snow almost put the kibosh on our Wizard of Oz pops, but things are looking up weather-wise for Gabe Lefkowitz and Friends' penultimate concert at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Wednesday and Thursday, January 11 and 12, we will perform music of Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart in the Great Room, and I am pleased to say that the Thursday night concert is SOLD OUT!  (Limited tickets remain for Wednesday night).  Even the stage will be crowded, as this installment of GL&F boasts a much bigger band; the Vivaldi (“Spring,” from The Four Seasons) and the Bach (Concerto for Oboe and Violin) will feature a 10-piece orchestrina typical of the Baroque. Mozart's delightfully pure Clarinet Quintet will finish the concert.

After this weekend's bracing weather, it looks like we'll be getting a proper January Thaw.  Vivaldi's “Spring” has a lot of the musical devices of nature: the tweeting birds, the rivulets of melting snow, even a barking dog (the solo viola in the 2nd movement).  You can almost hear the sap running in the maple trees!  After the Vivaldi, Principal oboist Claire Chenette will join Gabe for one of Bach's “other double concertos.”  The contrasting timbres of the oboe and violin go together like peaches and cream in this highly conversational, delicately interwoven work.

Mozart's Clarinet Quintet is nestled neatly in the Mozart catalog between his famous Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and his social commentary opera Cosi fan tutte.  Principal clarinetist Gary Sperl will provide the woodwind flavor for this work.  I reiterate that I did perform the quintet with Gary in 1985 at a restaurant in Charleston, SC.  One of the treats of playing at the Spoleto Festival was the profusion of high end restaurants at which festival participants could perform chamber music in exchange for a meal, or rain check for one.  By the end of our stay in Charleston, some of us had a backlog of “meal tickets” to use in just a couple of days.  We were pretty well-fed by the time we got on the plane to Italy!  Ahh, to be young and working cheap.  ANYway, Gary pulled together a quintet and we deployed our forces at a place called Celia's; how he remembered the name of the place is beyond me.  Little did I know that I would be joining him in the KSO just a year later, let alone that I would be playing the Mozart with him 32 years later.

Special thanks to the law firm of Merchant and Gould for underwriting this series, and for the Knoxville Museum of Art for hosting us.  Hope to see you there!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Cellos and Trumpets and Horns, Oh My!

It's coming this Saturday night at 8! The world's most seen movie will be shown at the Civic Auditorium, with the accompaniment of a LIVE orchestra!

The art history class I took in college had a unit on motion pictures. My professor, Bernard Hanson, placed a lot of emphasis on how the score could make or break a movie's appeal by going way beyond merely filling silent frames. We covered some great classics; Citizen Kane, Alexander Nevsky, and Ben Hur, among others. The upcoming Pops concert, with the KSO under James Fellenbaum playing Herbert Stothart's Oscar-winning score to The Wizard of Oz, will present a very fine example of effective use of music to advance the plot.

The Wizard has been such a pervasive cultural icon in the 75 years since its release. I recently had the pleasure of watching the film with my mother, who saw it at age 12 when it first came out. Just trying to picture the collective "oohs and aahs" that surely occurred at that moment when Dorothy stepped out of the little house into Munchkinland, marking the birth of color film on the big screen. The movie has spawned (among other things) a rock band (Toto), an Elton John album (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), a donut-like treat (Munchkins), a song by America (The Tin Man), and a whole galaxy of internet memes. Here are some of my favorites...


Speaking of rock bands named "Toto..."

Truth in advertising

This one reminds me of the joke from the 80s, when Ted Turner was "colorizing" a lot of classic b&w movies. It was said that he wanted to "colorize" the first 10 minutes of The Wizard of Oz...

Friday, December 23, 2016

Last Minute Music Gifts

Yes, it's already Christmas Eve Eve, but there is still one shopping day left to give the gift of live music! Let's look at what is on January's horizon.

2017 will start with a trip to the Land of Oz! The movie that eased the pain of the Great Depression and has moved-- and frightened-- every generation since, will be shown with the accompaniment of the KSO. You've heard all of those great themes; Miss Gulch on her bike, the “If I Only Had A” variations, and the Winkies' marching chant; why not watch it with a live orchestra? When I think about the TV sets (and the “sound systems” they possessed) on which I've watched Dorothy and co., I can't imagine what that music is SUPPOSED to sound like. Well, we won't have to imagine any more, come January 7, 2017 when will Resident Conductor James Fellenbaum will lead us “Over the Rainbow” at the Civic Auditorium at 8:00.

An abrupt turn for the intimate will occur the next week, when on Jan 11 and 12 Gabe Lefkowitz and Friends will appear at the Knoxville Museum of Art with highly collaborative program. Featured will be Vivaldi's “Spring” from the Four Seasons, Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin with principal oboist Claire Chenette, and Mozart's Clarinet Quintet with principal clarinetist Gary Sperl. I will be playing the Mozart for the second time in my life. My first time was also with Gary Sperl, at the 1985 Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston. Gabe was... how old then? ANYway, we'll be in the Great Room at 7 p.m. both nights.

The KSO's long-time involvement with the Night with the Arts Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration will continue on January 16 at the Tennessee Theatre at 6 p.m. The Carpetbag Theatre will offer a drama production, and Aaron Staple will direct the Celebration Singers in what is sure to be a moving tribute. There is no admission charge to this concert, but promising to take a loved one to attend this show would be a sweet gesture.

Just a week later, the Masterworks series will continue with guest conductor Andrew Grams and violinist Bella Hristova on January 19 and 20 at the Tennessee Theatre. Sibelius' timeless Violin Concerto has been teamed up with two Czech masterpieces; Sarka from Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast (My Homeland) and Dvorak's Symphony No. 6. The Dvorak is every bit the equal of the three vaunted symphonies of his that follow, and the Smetana is a wild ride, sort of like… ummmm…. Czech Liszt.

The Principal String Quartet will take the Bijou stage on January 29 at 2:30 for two grand works, Tchaikovsky's Quartet No. 1 in D, and Beethoven's third “Razumovsky” Quartet. Tchaikovsky's opus 10 contains the lovely Andante cantabile, which is often extracted to be played with string orchestra. The Beethoven is a particularly choice work with a torrid fugal finale that you will need to buckle your seatbelts for.

Here's hoping your holidays are restful and sweet, and that 2017 finds you at a Knoxville Symphony show.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A World of Joy

It's time for another Q Series episode! This Wednesday at noon, the Principal String Quartet and Principal Woodwind Quintet will bring a blend of well-seasoned classics and Christmas cheer to the table, to complement the delicious food provided by the host Square Room's kitchen. The Principal strings will preview our January 29th Bijou Theatre concert with a movement each from the Beethoven op. 59, No. 3 and Tchaikovsky D minor quartets. The Woodwinds will feature a suite from Bizet's Jeux d'enfants or “Children's Games.” (“Jeux” is pronounced to rhyme with “milieu,” and “d'enfants” becomes “dawnfawnce,” with the “n” sound merely hinted at, but not pronounced. I know, it doesn't sound anything like it looks-- darn those French with all of the silent letters in their words!)

There's a chance that as many as 3/5 of the wind quintet will be arriving at the concert on two wheels. Flutist Johanna Gruskin and oboist Claire Chenette log a lot of miles here and there, and clarinetist Gary Sperl is a renowned biker, but I daresay it is faster for him to walk to the Square Room from his residence.

Johanna and Claire


December is the time of year when musicians are busier than mustard trying to ketchup. The coming week for the KSO, however, is Clayton week. This year's production is filled with bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, heaven and nature singing, Prancer and Vixen, and some snow and mistletoe. We shall take the road before us and sing a chorus or two, while visions of sugar plums dance in our heads. Maestro Demirjian's first Clayton Holiday Concerts will showcase GO! Contemporary Danceworks, the Powell High School Singers, mezzo-soprano Allison Deady, and the Knoxville Choral Society along with YOUR Knoxville Symphony. This weekend's concert times will be Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3. A certain North Pole resident is planning on appearing, with his usual elfin entourage and a sackful of delightfully irreverent humor.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Christmas Season Kick-off

The KSO's highly successful Classical Christmas concert, inaugurated last November, returns this coming Sunday at the Bijou Theatre at 2:30. I wouldn't be surprised if the concert was sold out; as of last Friday, there were only single seats available on the main floor. Our guests will be the Pellissippi State Variations vocal ensemble, and all will be led by new music director Aram Demirjian.

Works performed include Overture to a Merry Christmas (a mash-up of Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro and Joy to the World), Bizet's Farandole, selections from The Nutcracker, and music by Gustav Holst, as well as selections from the Messiah.

Handel's Messiah is the go-to work for showing off a chorus and an orchestra around the holidays. Okay, I admit it; we are show-offs, but we'll be tempering our show-offiness by only presenting the overture (Sinfonia) and the choruses And the Glory of the Lord and Hallelujah- (the entire work takes up 2-1/2 hours).

After taking a Messiah trivia quiz, I learned some interesting facts. Throughout his life, Handel refused to accept any money from the performances of Messiah. He refused because he felt that he did not deserve it. The oratorio's first performance was presented in Dublin on April 13, 1742. In order to increase the capacity of the concert hall, men were asked to leave their dress swords at home and women were asked to not wear farthingales (hoopskirts). Although the Dublin premier was very successful, the Messiah received a poor reception in London because of religious objections to the use of a sacred text in a theater. Our performance will be “co-ed,” but in Handel's day, the orchestra and chorus for Messiah were significantly smaller than those with which we are used to seeing it performed today. The chorus was only 20 singers and they were all male. Soprano and alto parts were sung by boys and castrati. Here are links to a couple of trivia quizzes...

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Blues, Bluegrass and Something Blue

Blues, Bluegrass and Something Blue

Maestro Aram Demirjian returns to the podium this Thursday and Friday at 7:30 at the Tennessee Theatre for an an all-American program that draws on Appalachian themes for much of its content. Charles Ives' saucy Variations on “America” will open the program, followed by William Grant Still's African-American Symphony.  After intermission, a gem of a concerto for mandolin and orchestra, From the Blue Ridge will be played, with composer Jeff Midkiff performing the solo mandolin part.  The concert will conclude with Copland's beloved Appalachian Spring.

In 1891, Charles Ives was 17.  That a man so young could come up with such a concise and fresh debut as his Variations on “America” for organ proves that there was some seriously precocious talent at work here.  1891 is the year before Dvorak came to America, and while all of musical Europe was entrenched in mature romanticism, (Brahms had written all of his symphonies by 1885) Ives was dabbling with polytonality, or simultaneous use of unrelated keys.  The work lay fallow more than a half a century as an organ work before organist E. Power Biggs “discovered” it, and in 1962 American composer William Schuman orchestrated the work to its current form.  The theme that is the basis of the work is sometimes known as My Country 'Tis of Thee, but it is also the tune that served at one time or another in the 19th century as an anthem for Norway, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Russia, and of course England, where it is known as God Save the Queen.

William Grant Still is known as “the dean of African-American composers,” and his music possesses a truly “Southern” palette.  The African-American Symphony, from 1930, was at one time the most widely performed symphony by any American composer.  The first movement is particularly infused with the blues, and all four short movements utilize the pentatonic scale, which conforms to the shape and sound of only the black keys on the piano and their various incarnations.  The third movement, subtitled Humor, quotes Gershwin's I Got Rhythm.  Whether Still copped this from the Gershwin song, or the tune was actually arrived at unawares by both composers, is up for debate.  Passages in this movement also hint at George M. Cohan's You're a Grand Old Flag from 1904.

Next up will be From the Blue Ridge, one of the only works in existence that showcases the mandolin, outside of works by Vivaldi and (Prairie Home Companion host) Chris Thile.  Composer Jeff Midkiff is a Roanoke, VA native who participated in bluegrass escapades with such groups as The McPeak Brothers, the Lonesome River Band and Chicago's Bluegrass Express.  Amazingly enough, though, he has also had a career as a classical clarinetist, performing as a member of the Roanoke Symphony and the Naples (FL) Philharmonic.  Such an eclectic background could only lead to a desire to compose classical music, and this work shows some mad skills.  Suffice it to say that if you enjoy Mark O'Connor's Concerto for Fiddle, you are going to adore this work.

What can be said about Copland's Appalachian Spring?  It is one of the most oft-performed American orchestral works, and although the story behind the ballet is set in Pennsylvania, the subject could easily be the matrimonial proceedings of any young, rural couple in any of the states through which the Appalachian range passes, from Maine to Georgia.  Maestro Demirjian is very passionate about the work, and the passion shows as his ideas and interpretation diverge in a refreshing way from the boilerplate conception to which everyone is accustomed.