Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Springing for the Classics

For our April Masterworks concerts this coming Thursday and Friday the 16th and 17th, we are privileged to have with us guest maestro Vladimir Kulenovic leading us through a program of Smetana, Rachmaninov and Beethoven. Vladimir is the Associate Conductor of the Utah Symphony, and Resident Conductor of the Belgrade Philharmonic. That is quite a commute! The repertoire on this concert pair approximately brackets the 19th century, with the Beethoven dating from 1808, the Rachmaninov from 1891 (but revised in 1917), and the Smetana from somewhere in between.

Bedrich Smetana was a Czech composer who lived and worked roughly 20 years earlier than his more celebrated countryman, Dvorak, and the first Czech opera composer of substance. The Bartered Bride (admittedly a highly mockable title), from 1866, is the only one of his eight operas still performed on an international scale. The composer's name is apparently being pronounced incorrectly, as it is widely pronounced with the accent on the first syllable. One source has his name pronounced to rhyme with “piranha.” There is no small amount of gypsy flavor in Smetana's music, and the Bartered Bride Overture is a wild ride from stem to stern. There are actually two different fugues in the work, a fast, perpetual motion deal at the beginning, and a more choppy, syncopated one in the middle. I'm going to be frank here; there are a lot of notes in this piece! In my auditioning heyday, the appearance of this work's excerpts on a repertoire list was a signal for me to steer clear of that audition. So many opportunities (about 12 per second) to sound like a squeaky Greyhound Bus seat! Here's where the beauty of playing in an orchestra, where there is safety in numbers, is evident.

Finnish pianist Antti Siirala will join us for the Rachmaninov First Piano Concerto. There may still be some alive who heard Rachmaninov's final performance right here in Knoxville in 1943, but through the magic of Youtube, we can now hear (but unfortunately, not see) Rachmaninov performing this concerto.

Finally, we get to Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony, #6. This is not to be confused with the Pastoral Symphony from Handel's Messiah, which all too often serves as nap music in performances of that oratorio. I am just amazed at how beautiful Beethoven's music is, considering what a complete mess his manuscripts look like, as you can see below. Hard to make out heads or tails from what he left us!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter!

Now that spring is surely here to stay, it's no longer necessary to worry about whether concerts will be canceled-- due to snow, at least. I do remember a couple of snowy Easters from the past, but those were up north in Connecticut, where no weather is considered unusual. We will now concentrate our hopes for dry weather for our evening outdoor concerts on Knoxville's Market Square May 7th, and in Maryville's Theatre in the Park May21st. Although our Ijams Nature Center concert in September has NEVER been rained out in 28 years, springtime weather can be much touchier. Last season's Maryville concert saw both audience and orchestra members bravely ignoring the elements until a big honkin' downpour put an end to it. There is a rain date for the Maryville show, (the next night), but mark my words, WE WON'T NEED IT.

People don't usually think of Easter music the way they do about Christmas music, but in general it is a much more staid style. Haydn's Seven Last Words from the Cross is a very appropriate choice, with several different arrangements available. Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture is a bit more grandiose. Rachmaninov's Vespers, written on the eve of Rachmaninov's departure from Russia, is THE most beautiful a capella choir writing ever. Collections of music for this holiday (here is one) often include Dvorak's Stabat Mater, which was performed here in February. I feel lucky to have been introduced to this work.

Easter. And Queen. There's not a lot of overlap there, I am specializing in awkward segues today. From the 70s to the 90s Queen specialized in smooth segues (like the ones in Bohemian Rhapsody, the third largest-selling single in British history), creating a body of work that isn't served well by either the “prog-rock” or the “classical rock” label. Their sonic palette was gigantic, and their harmonies were cartoon-like in their complexity and precision. All of this is to say that THEY WERE REALLY COOL. Who am I fooling, you know what I'm talking about. Like Elvis Costello said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This “Night at the Races” will be THIS SATURDAY April 11th at the Civic Auditorium at 8:00. The production, The Music of Queen! is the creation of Windborne Music, an entity which has in their stable of productions geared towards symphonic audiences not just Queen, but in addition the music of Whitney Houston, U2, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and Pink Floyd. Their schedule is full, with each of these shows criss-crossing the continent.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

We Have the Technology...

There have been a whole lot of notes flying by my eyes in the past couple of weeks, but one somewhat extra-musical thing has happened in the KSO system that is quite noteworthy. For the third year in a row, the KSO has received a Getty Education & Community Investment Grant from the League of American Orchestras. This grant has enabled the KSO to purchase tablets for reading music. The future of music reading has arrived, and the KSO's Music and Wellness program reaps the benefits of this new technology. A task that used to involve setting up a stand, arranging music in the correct order (sometimes with huge, bulky notebooks and new books which reFUSE to lie flat and stay open) and searching for opportunities to turn pages, is now cut down to a single device which can store hours of music. Here is a shot of violinists Sean Claire and Sara Matayoshi, violist Eunsoon Corliss, and cellist Stacy Miller (and their tablets!) in action.

This weekend's Big Ears Festival collaboration with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble will bring the music of Max Richter to the Tennessee Theatre on Sunday, March 29 at 8:00. Mr. Richter is known for his score to the HBO series The Leftovers, excerpts from which will be performed along with his reworking of the Vivaldi Four Seasons. Phrases and motives are looped and stacked, giving Vivaldi's virtuoso concerti a techno-minimalist feel.

Just in time for warm weather's return, the orchestra will be taking a week off. I'd say we've earned it. While the KSO proper won't be performing this week, some members will be busy this coming Monday, the 30th with pianist Kevin Class as he wraps up his complete cycle of the Brahms Piano Trios. The concert is in the sumptuous new Powell Recital Hall at the UT Music Department. Details on the works can be found on my Feb. 16th post.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Hi, It's been a while, how are you? A lot of water has passed under the bridge since my last post, it's just a dizzying pace at which we proceed. I will offer a glimpse of what's coming up this Thursday and Friday nights at 7:30 at the Tennessee Theatre, but also a reflection on the last two weeks. 

My 200-something-year-old cello and I have been battling the forces of age and physics- and each other- to hammer out some sort of an agreement with the opening solo in Rossini's Overture to William Tell. One of the most famous solos in the literature, the cello starts with an e-minor arpeggio, (depicting a sunrise), and is soon joined by 4 more solo celli. But wait, here comes a B-7 arpeggio! All told, there are five arpeggios in the opening Andante. HOW MANY SUNS ARE GOING TO RISE!? WHAT PLANET ARE WE ON?! The last one ends on a note so high that only dogs can hear it. (I asked my dog Lucy if it's in tune, and she held out her paw, so I guess it was good). Directly, the violins start a wavering figure that signals a storm brewing, after which the English Horn plays a most amazing little idyllic solo that I'm pretty sure you will recognize from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The final “gallop” is famous for being the theme from The Lone Ranger, also known to some East Tennessee children as “the How.” (You know, “Hoooow Silver!!!!)”

Phew. After a visit to Mozart's Piano Concerto #25, (which we will rehearse Tuesday evening with Conrad Tao as soloist), guest maestro James Feddeck will lead us through a performance of the Symphony No. 3 of Felix Mendelssohn (the “Scottish”). My junior year in high school was quite forgettable, especially given that I received a D-minus in the most boring class I have ever taken, 18th-century British literature. The highlight of that course, though, came the day we watched a movie (yes, SUPER 8) about this very symphony. It contained dramatic views of the lochs and verdant moors found in the Scottish countryside, and the turbulent seas surrounding it. Mendelssohn's picturesque music grabbed my attention, and since then I have always looked forward to playing the work. 


Here's a look back at early March's doings and goings-on.

The Midtown Men were a kick! They made the scene and rocked the house this past Saturday night with a "boss" revue of 60's Pop. I sure never thought I would get to play Time of the Season by the Zombies! Here is their "selfie" with the Civic Auditorium audience...

Just a few days earlier, the KSO core strings joined forces with the Oak Ridge High School orchestra in a concert of music by Bach, Mozart, Holst, and Warlock. This shot is of the combined forces, their three ensembles (totaling more than 200 players!) and ours. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

March's Marvels

March is going to feature some old favorites and some new ground. Q Series, Masterworks and especially Pops (with the Midtown Men) are going to be mining the mother lode of our musical memories. At the other end of the month, Knoxville's indefinable avant-garde happening, the Big Ears Festival, will involve a bevy of our players for the first time.

Next in sight is the Jersey Boys cast performing boy-group and vocal ensemble hits from the 60s and 70s. The Turtles, the Zombies, the Mamas and the Papas, and especially the Four Seasons will all be well represented. That's next Saturday at 8 at the Civic Auditorium, aka the “Mike and Gloria Stivik Auditorium." (If you get this reference, then this is just the show for you).

On the 19th and 20th, The Masterworks Series will guest-host a maestro (James Feddeck) and a pianist (Conrad Tao) in a traditional concert of must-see standards. How standard, you say? Try Rossini's Overture to William Tell and Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony. The cello quintet that opens the Rossini is some of the most sublime music ever, the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25 refreshingly is NOT one of the “big 3” Mozart concerti, and Mendelssohn gives us his take on the land of Robert Burns, Arthur Conan Doyle, and- these creatures...

Another old Mendelssohn favorite, one which I have waited 34 years to perform since my first time, (Jimmy Carter was president, good grief!) is his String Quartet, op. 44, No. 1. Again, one of those works that needs a better title than just a bunch of numbers. I bet if I said this is the 450SL, 911S or TR4A of string quartets, you would know what I meant. This work will be among others presented at the Q Series on March 25th at noon at the Square Room on Market Square.

Finally, on the 29th of March, a very interesting re-imagining of Vivaldi's Four Seasons by German Composer Max Richter will happen. This will be a small part of the weekend-long Big Ears Festival that boasts the Kronos Quartet, Laurie Anderson, guitarist Bill Frisell, and composer Terry Riley, among many others, as guests. 

As if that wasn't enough, The Principal String Quartet and Principal Flutist Nick Johnson will join harpist Cindy Hicks will perform a recital of music for flute, harp and strings on Thursday, March 12 at 7:30 pm. at First Baptist Church downtown. This is a beautiful venue (as you can see below) for any kind of music, but especially harp music.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Thawing Out at the Bijou

Just in time to welcome the (hopefully less snowy!) month of March, it's Copland's Appalachian Spring with the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra and the Go! Contemporary Dance Works at the Bijou. We sorely missed performing with them at the Very Young People's Concerts which were canceled last week, but here comes another chance today at 2:30.

I have to eat my words here. Driving home from a Dvorak Bass Quintet rehearsal on Wednesday night, with snow and cars swirling around me, it became clear that the next morning's show was most certainly not going to go on. I THOUGHT THIS WAS THE SOUTH!! Sorry, just venting. I hope everyone got the word about the cancellation, and furthermore, I hope everyone got to make a snow angel! The snow was the show that day.

For the Copland, we will be performing the 13-player version of the Suite, which debuted in 1972. The 1944 original, complete ballet was scored for 13, but the Suite version that everyone knows was only ever scored for a full (or at least chamber) orchestra until '72. It's been interesting to see how the music gets redistributed through the orchestra, for instance, the piano gets a shot at the wicked fast violin and viola scales at the end. They tell me the dancers are wonderful; the costumes alone are breathtaking. What little choreography I can see (when I'm not too concerned with what's on the music stand) is gorgeous.

The first half of the concert will be composed by Grieg, Honegger (pronounced “Own-a-gare”), and Webern (pronounced “VAY-burn”). The Grieg will be an old string orchestra favorite, the Holberg Suite. An early Webern work is also for strings alone, Langsamer Satz. It reminds me of Mahler; I can't think of which symphony, but there is definitely very similar thematic and harmonic allusion. The Principal woodwind Quintet will join the strings for Honneger's work, Pastorale d'été. A mood piece, it's kind of a musical version of Georges Seurat's La Grande Jatte.

Rain is in the forecast and it's probably not a good day for a sortie to “Le Cove de Cade” or other such outdoor destinations, so why not come hear- and see- spring unfold before your very ears and eyes?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Shows By Kids, Shows For Kids

Tonight at 4:30 and 7:00 at the Tennessee Theatre, The Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestras will be presenting their FREE winter concerts. The hidden significance of this news is its scope: one single concert is no longer sufficient to contain all of the ensembles' audiences, let alone its repertoire. Credit goes to Youth Orchestras Manager Kathy Hart, who has been mentoring youth through violin instruction and orchestra leadership in Knoxville for longer than she or I would care to say... She was Artistic Administrator for the KSO for some time, also, escorting guest artists around town, so she is at home with big stars AND Knoxville's musical youth. Save some of the credit, of course, for THE KIDS THEMSELVES, whose interest in classical music warrants five different ensembles. The 4:30 show will showcase the Preludium, led by Erin Archer, the Philharmonia, under Nina Missildine, Miss Kathy's Sinfonia, and Dr. Wesley Baldwin's Youth Chamber Orchestra.

The 7:00 show will be the Youth Symphony on its own, with James Fellenbaum directing a performance of concerto competition winners and Alexander Borodin's excitable 2nd Symphony in its entirety. That is a rarity in and of itself, the group having played an entire full-scale work only twice before, but what's even rarer is the fact that both concerto winners are playing works by Kabalevsky! Cellist Jerry Zhou will play a movement of Mr. Kabalevsky's 1st Cello Concerto, and eighth-grader Autumn Arsenault will perform a movement of the 3rd Piano Concerto. (Yes, I said EIGHTH GRADER).

The KSO's adult contingent will be playing its Very Young People's Concerts this coming week! Picardy Penguin's back in town with a special performance of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. The guest artist for Maestro Richman's first Gala Concert back in ought-three was Martin Short. A hit from his show was a semi-serious rendition of Short narrating this work. I don't think Mr. Short will be narrating the show this time, but we'll find out in a few hours, as the rehearsal for this show is right before the Youth Orchestras concerts. We will also perform Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro and Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee. I tell you what, I'd give anything to see weather warm enough for bees to be flying around. Of the three performances of this concert, there is only one with tickets still available, the Thursday, Feb. 26th show at 11:00 at the Tennessee Theatre. Other shows are that same morning at 9:30, and Tuesday the 24th at 9:30 at the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville.