Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Faster and Faster

The Christmas season has us in its embrace! You may have noticed in your travels some people moving so fast that they are just blurs, with musical instruments in tow. There is a plethora-and-a-half of additional work for musicians this time of year. Some of it is contracted as early as July! I believe the record for one day is SIX engagements, although there are still lessons to teach and families to feed. Our schedules are finally sculpted masterpieces of precision that only the most lethal weather can alter. A time allowance is always made, however, for visiting the receptions at these gigs. Let me tell you, there are some great cooks out there! Sausage balls, pfeffernüsse, Christmas bark, the list goes on and on. Savvy giggers bring empty leftover containers, and in the true spirit of the season, the locals encourage us to fill them! The amazing array of refreshments help us shun the Burger King drive-through, in addition to atoning for the occasional underprepared choir, cheesy arrangements or clueless choir director.

The KSO's focus this time of year is to bring classy, classic holiday tunes on a large scale. The annual Clayton Holiday Concerts have set a high standard in our community for quality seasonal music. This year, the 31st in the run, is no exception, with the theme of the concerts being Music from the Movies. A “heavenly host” of ensembles will join the KSO, including the Knoxville Choral Society, the Knoxville Handbell Festival Ringers, Go! Contemporary Danceworks and the Farragut High School Ensemble. A certain circumpolar resident will also bring his extensive, high-spirited retinue to the stage. These concerts will be presented at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium at 7:30 pm on December 15 and 16, and at 3:00 on December 16 and 17.  Tickets here.




The immediate focus of the orchestra is our continuing collaboration with the Appalachian Ballet Company's production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker this Friday at 7:30 and Saturday at 3:00 at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the campus of Maryville College. A story that never gets old, this marks the ABC's 46th annual production of the ballet, accompanied by the KSO for the last 44 years. This is an amazing, durable partnership, the like of which is seldom seen in markets our size. Often when a recording of the Nutcracker Suite is heard, the tempi are so quick that you have to ask yourself how anyone could dance to something that fast. Still, I have noticed that the tempi in many of the faster dances have been bumped up; this can be seen as a subtle tribute to the steadily growing quality of the dance troop.


Hope to see you there!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Look at Tomorrow and a Look Back

With Black Friday behind us, (wait, black for whom!?) we can now turn our attention to the more spiritual aspects of the Holiday season.  I trust that none of you “took chips” in line at Best Buy or Kohl's, or rammed the car that took the last parking spot at Walmart.  Having survived this commemoration of consumerism, you owe it to yourself to have your ears filled with the joyous sounds of the season, brought to you by the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra and the Webb School's Madrigal Singers.  I hope you acted in a timely fashion, though, because it appears that this concert, today at 2:30 at the Bijou, is SOLD OUT.

If you WERE lucky enough to be an early bird and score tickets to this concert, here's what you have to look forward to.  The Webb Madrigal Singers, under the direction of LeAnne Johnson, are in high demand this time of year for performances of sacred and secular music.  Their share of the concert is substantial; they will partake in the final nine selections.  Highlights of this involvement are the Hallelujah Chorus and Glory to God from Handel's Messiah, the “Shepherds' Farewell” from Berlioz' oratorio L'enfance du Christ, and a wacky a capella arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas. This arrangement, credited to the a capella group Straight No Chaser, reweaves the traditional Twelve Days text into a crazy choral quilt by incorporating quotes from five or six other carols, the Dreidel Song, and even Toto's 1982 hit Africa.  Instrumental numbers include Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on 'Greensleeves,' Tchaikovsky's Christmas Waltz and the Farandole from Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite.  I never knew the Bizet had lyrics!  You learn something every day.



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Let's take a look back at a couple fun November KSO events…

The Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestras presented their Fall concerts on Monday the 13th. 



Red scarves and neckties lent an extra touch of class to Kathy Hart's Sinfonia ensemble. The Philharmonia orchestra, directed by Nina Mikos, had teal accents. (photo courtesy of Sarah Gimbel).


James Fellenbaum's Youth Symphony did a tremendous job with Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol. I especially relished the performance because I played the work in my youth orchestra. (photo courtesy of Hahn Choo).


Sean Claire (far right) performed Mendelssohn's "other" Violin Concerto (in D) with the Youth Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Wesley Baldwin (far left). Center three (left to right) are Kathy Hart, Preludium orchestra director Erin Archer, and Jim Fellenbaum.

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The KSO UnStaged event on the previous Thursday was an unqualified success, with its diverse intimate performance stations across The Standard's wonderful facility.



Beer was the overture to this concert, with Knox Brew Tours meister Zack Roskop speaking on the brewer's art...


… and photo-bombing some musicians celebrating the triumph…


A new work by composer Annika Socolovsky (standing at left two photos up) was commissioned for the event. Here percussionist Bob Adamcik hones his bowed vibraphone technique prior to the performance.


Violinists Ruth Bacon Edewards, Robyn Quinette, violist Jennifer Bloch and cellist Ildar Khuziakhmetov perform The Eurhythmics' Sweet Dreams Are Made of This.






Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Warm Tunes for Cold November Nights

The November Masterworks concert pair this Thursday and Friday at the Tennessee Theatre boasts three essential masterpieces.  Beethoven's Violin Concerto will be in the unusual lead-off spot, with two tone poems following intermission; Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration, and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet.  Any of these works could either open or close a concert, and their content is gripping.

Beethoven's concerto for violin is a towering work in its genre, although it had a rocky start. Beethoven finished writing the solo violin part the day of the premiere, so that the soloist and dedicatee, Franz Clement, had to sightread parts of it at the performance!   Needless to say, these less-than-ideal conditions led to an unsuccessful debut, and the work lay in relative obscurity until 1844. At that time, 12-year-old Joseph Joachim resuscitated the work in London under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn.  Joachim would later become a close friend of Brahms, collaborating on the later master's violin concerto and contributing the work's cadenza.   Luckily, guest soloist Paul Huang will have had much more time to prepare than Franz Clement did back in the day.

Death and Transfiguration is a deceptively macabre title for a work that is chock-full of both energy and profound beauty.  Strauss's command of orchestration is just jaw-dropping, and guest maestro Joshua Gersen has his finger on the pulse of the composer's intentions.  The phrase “tone poem” has come to be a catch-all term for a programmatic work that is longer than an overture but usually shorter than a symphony.  It isn't that the music is particularly rhyme-y; it might as easily be called a “tone saga,” or “tone mural.”  Tchaikovsky's Overture-Fantasy “Romeo and Juliet” touches on all the moods and nerves of Shakespeare's drama, thanks to some of his most poignant coloristic writing. Check out the muted violas and second violins about 5 minutes in.  It is the most beautiful musical depiction of bullfrogs in the moonlight, serenading the two lovers. 

Performances are Thursday, Nov. 16 and Friday, Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Tennessee Theatre. Tickets found here.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Novemberfest

Anyone who has lived in this town for more than 10 or 15 years cannot deny the spectacular growth that the city has experienced in that period.  This “crescendo” has been encapsulated by the boom in craft breweries, ignited by a national trend thereto.  Knoxville currently boasts at least ten of these institutions, where ten years ago there might have been one.  The KSO has partnered with several of them in presenting a new and unique music-centric experience called “UnStaged.”  The idea is to bring classical music away from the concert hall, and present it in a more intimate setting in a more informal and thirst-quenching way.

Two promotional performances – “appetizers” – have already taken place at beer terminals in town, and a third is just a couple days away.  On October 5, cellist Stacy Nickell and violinists Ruth Bacon Edewards and Rachel Loseke performed at the Pretentious Beer Company on Central Ave. in the Old City.  The late Classical music patriarch of Knoxville, Norris Dryer, would have been so proud knowing that not only has a brewpub opened up below his old apartment, but also that classical music was being played there!  On the following Thursday, principal bassist Steve Benne, principal oboist Claire Chenette, and violinist Zofia Glashauser performed WAY out west at the Blackhorse Pub and Brewery.  Coming up this Thursday, November 2nd at 5:30, principal bassoonist Aaron Apaza, principal flutist Hannah Hammel and violist Eunsoon Corliss will hold court at the Casual Pint of Downtown at 421 Union Ave., next to the Oliver Hotel.


The main UnStaged event will take place on Thursday, November 9th at 7 pm at The Standard on Jackson Avenue in the Old City (next to Sweet P's Barbecue).  Compositions for various-sized ensembles will be performed in two different performance spaces within the venue, including Mozart's Symphony no. 40 and Milhaud's La creation du monde.  Beers from Alliance Brewing Co., Blackhorse Brewery, Crafty Bastard Brewery and Last Days of Autumn Brewing Co. will be featured.  Food will be tastefully provided by Knoxville caterer Nancy Kendrick, and between sets, the members of the KSO will mingle with concertgoers beer devotees.  The event is funded in part by a generous grant from the American Orchestras' Future Fund, a program of the League of American Orchestras. Tickets are here and include tastings from said brewers.



Outside looking in on the Oct. 5 Pretentious Beer Co event



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

DYNAMICS AND YOU

DYNAMICS AND YOU

That ticking sound you hear, it sounds like when you've turned your car off and it's cooling down, right? Well, that is the players of the KSO collectively quenching, after an intense run of performances going back to September's Masterworks concerts. The Q Series, Unstaged, and Meet the Musicians slates were full, then the Chamber Classics season started up with a bang on Oct. 1. The Concertmaster and Friends recital at the KMA brought a new star into Knoxville's classical sky in William Shaub, and as if to dot the “ı,” the KSO performed John Williams' dynamic soundtrack to accompany the first Harry Potter film just this past weekend.

I called the Williams score “dynamic,” which is a word that has many meanings in music. It can be a noun or an adjective. As an adjective, it means “vigorous,” “vivid,” or even “vibrant.” The noun version can refer to the “vibe” or the “chemistry” of the group-- e.g., group dynamics. Specific to music, however, the notation of volume at which a player or ensemble should play, the size of the sound, is called the “dynamics.” This is notated with the letters f and p, which are the abbreviations for the Italian words forte (loud) and piano (soft). Multiples of these letters indicate extremes; I have seen as many as five in either direction, but usually only up to two. After three it just gets to be kind of a joke; I mean, we don't have little dials that louden us decibel by decibel, we have pieces of wood and metal, operated by our breath and hands. An increase in volume is called a crescendo, and a decrease a diminuendo (or a decrescendo, they are synonymous). These words can also be replaced with symbols, elongated “>'s” or “<'s” with which the wider, the louder. The usual term for these signs is “hairpin;” I guess “tweezers” would sound a little weird, but it's exactly that shape. A crescendo over several measures will usually just employ the abbreviation cresc., since the converging lines of the symbols would be visual pollution on the page. It's easy to overlook a 5 letter word in italics, however, so a player may boost his chances at correct execution by drawing a symbol in. Slide…




This is the cello part to Beethoven's Violin Concerto, last movement. You can see on the second line down where every other note has a swell on it. In measure 150, a typical Beethoven feature is found; the “crescendo to nothing.” (Not all crescendos result in a f). In measure 158 notice the word dimin. printed, and you'll agree that the dynamic symbol, if used here, would get in the way of other musical indications.

The effect of a composition's dynamics is dependent on each player's adherence to their parts' dynamic markings. A sudden (or subito) piano in the midst of a forte phrase is a lot more embarrassing to miss than the other way around. A sharply attacked note might have the letters sfz or just sf on it; this stands for sforzando and means “with sudden emphasis.” A similar notation is fp, meaning fortepiano, which is just a loud start to a note rather than a sharp attack. The distinction between these two markings can be enigmatic. As if all this wasn't enough, let's throw in accents. They're little “>'s” on a single note, meaning yet another attack scenario. Whatever the indication, the uniformity and force of each players' attack on that note must be worked out precisely; one can't just blat or scrape indiscriminately. Slide…




Here is the opening of Mahler's 4th Symphony. The whole spectrum of dynamic indications is here, as is typical with Mahler's persnickety (yet beautiful) music. Every measure has some sort of “diacritical marks”-- accents, accents under slurs, sforzandos, sforzandos under slurs, fortepianos… All of these must be unified and coordinated across the orchestra-- this is why we rehearse.

So if I said, “the ensemble's attention to dynamics made for an impressive group dynamic that resulted in a dynamic performance,” it appears that I have used the same word three times in one sentence, but I am really just pointing out that the word “dynamic” is a many-splendored thing.  

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Concertmaster Series Sets Sail Again

The KSO's Concertmaster & Friends series has experienced a sea change, with a new captain at the helm.  Concertmaster William Shaub brings more youth and vigor to a series that was already pretty youthful and vigorous.  The series has always been a forum which combined virtuoso violin repertoire and staples of chamber music literature, and that will continue under Will's leadership.  The opening installments of the 2017-18 campaign will be this Wednesday and Thursday at 7:00, at the Knoxville Museum of Art.  The program will consist of works by Sarasate, Franck and Beethoven.

Pablo Sarasate was a Spanish violin prodigy from the later 19th century whose considerable technical prowess and pure tone were complemented by a distinctly Spanish compositional style which motivated his contemporaries throughout Europe.  He was the first to translate Spanish melody, rhythm and soul into violin-ese, inspiring the composition of Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and Lalo's Symphonie espagnole.  Will and pianist Kevin Class will perform Sarasate's Romanza Andaluza, from the “Spanish Dances” to open the program.

The first half centerpiece will be César Franck's iconic Sonata for Violin and Piano from 1886.  A highly regarded organist, pianist and teacher, Belgian-born Franck's composing output was sparse until this work (and several that followed) put him on the map in a big way.  The four-movement Sonata was presented to the titanic Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe as a wedding gift in September of 1886, and was performed at the wedding with a guest, Léontine Bordes-Pène playing the piano part.  The first public performance took place in a Brussels museum on December 16th of that year.  Somehow the concert ran long, and despite an official ban on artificial light at the museum, the two performers played the final three movements from memory in the dark.  Will and Kevin will have no such predicament, I assure you.

The concluding work will be Beethoven's Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4.  It's the only minor-key quartet in the Op. 18 folio of 6 quartets, which were commissioned by Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz (not to be confused with Lefkowitz!) of Bohemia.  Three of its movements are of an excitable, stormy nature, with only the Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto standing out with a quirky charm for comic relief.  

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Soul of Chamber Music in the Heart of Downtown

The chamber side of the KSO will be in evidence this week as the Principal String Quartet will present a concert at noon at the Square Room on Wednesday, Sept. 27, and the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra will bring a diverse program to the Bijou on Sunday afternoon at 2:30.

The Square Room is on Knoxville's Market Square downtown, hence the name. It also happens to be square in shape, but most rooms are, so in this case, the venue is named after its location, not its design.

The quartet will perform music of Mozart, Piazzolla and Mendelssohn. Mozart's quartet K. 159 is not your average “Baby Mozart” quartet; there is a quirkiness to it that indicates the composer's impatience with convention- with being square. The first movement Andante grazioso has a gentle start and is neither slow nor fast; a piece you might peg as a middle movement. Oddly sized phrases and differing textures keep you guessing as to the musical destination. The middle movement in this case is an urgently skittish Allegro. It has to be one of the best G minor movements ever written, on a list dominated by Mozart's “emo” gems. The finale is a Rondo, but you will probably want to call it a Theme and Variations. More punchy, boppy, B-flat major fun than you can shake a stick at, from a 14-year-old composer who was holed up in Milan working on his eighth opera.

Astor Piazzolla took traditional string quartet playing for a wild ride in 1989 with his Four for Tango, written for the Kronos Quartet. Its highly percussive, urban complexion will set the table for Felix Mendelssohn's String Quartet op. 44, No. 2 in E minor. Mendelssohn's rich palette keeps the music bright and charming in spite of the minor tonality.


The Sunday Chamber Classics series concert will begin in Revolutionary times, with Haydn's Symphony No. 60, the “Distraught” from 1775. Prokofiev's “Classical” Symphony will bridge the 140-year gap between itself and the Haydn by melding classical-era constructs with 20th-century tonal cheekiness. The concert will close with Maestro Aram Demirjian leading HK Gruber's Frankenstein!! This narrated showpiece from the Third Viennese School has every trick in the book coming in to play; “a show with everything but Yul Brynner,” as we used to say in the '80s. Gruber is said to be a distant relative of the composer of Silent Night, Franz Gruber, but that is where the similarity ends. This is music you will want to fasten your seatbelt for! Listen safely...