Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Road to Tanzania

As the KSO's 80th season winds down, it's an opportunity to take a look at what some members of our orchestra will be doing this summer.  There is one more concert, and it's tonight at 7:30 at Maryville's Theatre in the Park.  You guessed it, it's an outdoor concert, but the rain should be ending any minute now.  Resident Conductor Jim Fellenbaum will lead us in a fun, family-friendly show that is a repeat of our Market Square concert (which actually happened at the Bijou).  After that, it looks like HEAVY PARTYING as we await the announcement (annunciation?) of the selection of our new Music Director.


As happened in a previous summer, principal clarinetist Gary Sperl will be flying across the pond to teach with the Daraja Music Initiative in Moshi, Tanzania.  Actually, his previous stint there was for an entire school year, (during which Peter Cain was our principal clarinetist), but rest assured, he will be back in the fall for the new MD's first season.  He will be joined by violist Hillary Herndon and violinist Rachel Loseke this summer in this VOLUNTEER teaching mission.  Gary's project there started a while back and is also known as Clarinets for Conservation.  In addition to the obvious music education value, C4C seeks to educate about the plight of the mpingo tree, which is unique to Tanzania and from which comes the wood used to make clarinets.  Last summer Hillary started a sister project called Daraja Strings, which involved some of her UT students.  Rachel is very excited about the trip, and has set up a Gofundme account to help defray costs.  Hillary also has set up a fundraising mechanism through UT called Volstarter, which can be accessed byclicking here.  We wish them the best of luck this summer!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Grand (Opera) Finale

The KSO's May Masterworks concert pair offers a grand opportunity for grand opera music.  The centerpiece of the concerts will be The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure, which is music from the four operas making up Wagner's Ring cycle, arranged by Henk de Vlieger.  The lighter side of this music was presented in January, 2015 as part of our “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” Pops concert, along with footage of Bugs and Elmer as Siegfried and Brunhilde.  While there won't be any singing on our concert, there will be a massive orchestra featuring a rarely heard instrument that was invented just for these operas: the Wagner Tuba.  (And please remember, his name is pronounced “VOG-ner”). The Wagner tuba is an instrument that is doubled by French horn players.  I can't find the words to describe the difference between a French horn's sound and a Wagner tuba's sound, but the difference is real, and worth coming out to experience.  One unusual thing about this concert is the presence of not one but TWO pieces of music that have offstage brass.  At two different points in the Wagner, principal horn Jeffery Whaley will step off the stage and play the vaunted Siegfried horn calls that every horn player loves.


Our Wagner Tuba Quartet, from left: Sean Donovan, Mark Harrell, Mitzi Hall, Katie Johnson.


A better look at the Wagner tuba (right) compared to French horn (left).


The concert will open with Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, one of four overtures Beethoven composed for various productions of his opera Fidelio.  More like a movement of a symphony than an overture per se, this work features principal trumpet Chase Hawkins rendering two fanfares from different parts of the house.  There is also a demonically difficult violin lick shortly after the fanfares, you can't miss it.  The work is considered the best of the four overtures Beethoven composed for Fidelio, but it has been criticized for overwhelming the music which follows it in the opera-- in essence, for being TOO good.

Between the Beethoven and the Wagner comes a work which is decidedly not from 19th-century Germany.  American composer Christopher Theofanidis (rhymes with “free this”) has written a three-movement suite based on Australian aboriginal creation myths.  Theofanidis' musical language is reminiscent of Adam Schoenberg, whose Finding Rothko we performed last month, and of Gian Carlo Menotti.  I find it remarkable that the four horns that lead off the work seem louder than the 11 (or so) horns that populate the Wagner orchestra.

A special tribute will be offered after the Beethoven. Keyboardist Carol Zinavage, who is resigning at the end of the season, will be honored for her 31 years of playing with the orchestra.  When I was new in town, she and I became fast friends, and soon began a long string of (roughly) annual recital collaborations.  We discovered that our musical interests had a lot of overlap, especially concerning Rock n' Roll, and it was so heartening to know another person who “gets” my sense of humor.  We'll miss ya, Carol!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Indoor/Outdoor Orchestra

The Knoxville Opera's production of Tosca, each act of which was performed in a different venue, was a huge hit in spite of the rain that fell on Act 3 at the Tennessee Amphitheater.  Outdoor concerts continue to adorn the KSO's schedule, with a performance at Maryville's Theater in the Park on May 26, with a rain date the next night, and Market Square Thursday, May 5.  Due to imminent cold, rainy weather however, our Market Square concert TONIGHT will be held at the Bijou Theatre, where concert time temperatures hopefully will NOT expected to dip into the 40s.  (So far May is looking cooler than April, just like December seemed to be warmer than October).  WE are expecting to dip into the music of Johann Strauss (Roses from the South), Franz Josef Haydn (two movements from his “London” Symphony), Franz von Suppe (Light Cavalry Overture) and George Gershwin (The Man I Love), as well as music of Irving Berlin and Leroy Anderson.  Resident Conductor Jim Fellenbaum will direct, and with any luck, his darling daughter Kiri will be on hand to distract him. And in spite of the change of venue, this concert shall remain FREE.


The weekend will send us into the land of cool, smooth jazz, with special guest Kenny G gracing our Civic Auditorium Pops stage Saturday night at 8.  Get ready for Desafinado, Forever in Love, Heart and Soul, Songbird, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow like you've never heard them before-- or if you have, probably not live.  Kenny G captured listeners' hearts with his 1986 album Duotones and he has not let go in the ensuing 30 years.  I'm a Big Fan!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Final Chamber Classics Concert TODAY

The final concert of the KSO Chamber Classics series is TODAY at 2:30 at the Bijou Theatre!  And when I say “classics,” I mean it.  Like Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3, with Concertmaster Gabe Lefkowitz as soloist, Britten's Simple Symphony, and Dvorak's timeless Serenade for Strings.

Britten composed the Simple Symphony in 1933-34, and dedicated it to his childhood viola teacher, Audrey Alston, using melodies he composed when he was as young as ten.  It is a very accessible, strings-only work that shouldn't be confused with Carl Nielsen's work of (roughly) the same title, which is anything but simple.  Each of the four movements has alliterative titles; Boisterous Bouree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Sarabande, and Frolicsome Finale.  The second theme of the Pizzicato movement bears a striking resemblance to Barnacle Bill the Sailor from that old Popeye cartoon. 




Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major is a happy romp for soloist Gabe.  The work is in G Major, aka “the people's key.”  It is a staple on the audition circuit, and reveals a lot about a player's abilities.  After a brief intermission, we will finish our concert with the Dvorak's 1875 Serenade.  It's one of the “big 4” works in the genre, joining string serenades by late-Romantic heavies Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and (Dvorak protegé) Josef Suk.   I'm looking out at the sky right now and it's bright blue and cloudless.  This is the musical equivalent of that sky.  The work's sunny disposition reflects obviously happy times in the composer's life.  Many themes reappear from movement to movement in a dignified, reminiscent way, and the waltzy second movement bears a strong resemblance to Chopin's Waltz in C# Minor, op. 64, No. 2.  Same key and everything, but definitely with its own grace and intention.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Putting a Little English On It

The Knoxville Symphony's final Music Director candidate, Steven Jarvi, will take the stage with us Thursday (today) and Friday at the Tennessee Theatre at 7:30.  Adam Schoenberg's suite Finding Rothko will open, cellist Susie Yang will solo in Dvorak's monumental Cello Concerto, and Sir Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations closes the program.


Finding Rothko is a quartet of vignettes depicting composer Adam Schoenberg's (pronounced SHOWN-berg) reaction to four of American expressionist artist Mark Rothko's works.  Composed 10 years ago, the work does not describe the paintings per se, as did last month's Pictures at an Exhibition.  The appeal of Rothko's “color field” paintings does not translate well to the computer screen, since an average canvas of his might be 6 feet square.  The composition has some captivating tone clusters, stunning percussion colors, AND… you get to see keyboardist Carol Zinavage use her ELBOWS.  This is in no way a “bleep-bloop” modern work, though; there are some beautiful harmonies and timbres.  In a sense it is valid to say that the Schoenberg is not the only American work on the program, since Dvorak's concerto was written in New York while the composer was Director of the National Conservatory.  There isn't really much about the work that is American, though; rather, it is pure Dvorak, pure cello, pure virtuosity.


The concert ends in jolly good British fashion with the Enigma Variations.  Elgar, the premier British Romantic composer, characterizes himself and 13 of his friends with charming and memorable accuracy.  People over 45 or so may recall the oboe melody in Variation III from an insurance company commercial in the 80's.  Does anyone remember what company?  In Variation XIII, listen for the hushed tympani roll, suggesting the engine of an ocean liner-- the composer calls for a penny to be placed on the tympani for that extra industrial timbre.  And, be sure to bask in the luscious beauty of Variation IX, Nimrod.  In a season of repertoire filled with beautiful moments, I guarantee this is the one that will transport the most people the furthest.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Dancing Days Are Here Again

The KSO is presenting The Music of Led Zeppelin TONIGHT at 8 at the Civic Auditorium! The Civic will rock out to the likes of Whole Lotta Love, The Ocean (Ha! Last week we "Became Ocean"), Kashmir, and Black Dog. To my utter joy, all of the signature guitar hooks seem to be assigned to the cello!!!

Led Zeppelin's crunchy, high-energy sound has become a standard by which every other rock band is judged. Their 1975 tour included a stop at the Stokely Athletic Center on the UT campus, on March 2, although it doesn't appear that any other of their tours landed in Knoxville. A splinter group, “Page and Plant” performed at the Civic Coliseum on March 3, 1995 (wow, 20 years and a day later) and included many then-members of the KSO (mostly string players) who were hired free-lance.

Vocalist Robert Plant has since become a darling of the Americana genre, touring for a spell with bluegrass queen Alison Krauss in one of the most unlikely yet satisfying pairings in rock n' roll history. He has made sporadic appearances at Bonnaroo, just a couple hours west of here. Drummer John Bonham's death in 1980 signaled the end for the band. He was said to use the longest drumsticks available, which he called “trees.” I had always thought that his volume was high because his tracks were placed way upfront in the mix, but no, it was because he was just playing THAT LOUD.

Guitarist Jimmy Page got his start as a member of the guitar-heavy band the Yardbirds, which also boasted Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck as members at various times. Long story short, after that band dissolved in 1968, the original Led Zeppelin lineup was formed, and toured as “The New Yardbirds.” With some obvious copyright issues looming, (Who drummer Keith Moon suggested that the name would go over like a “lead balloon”), the name was changed to Lead Zeppelin, but the “a” in “Lead” was dropped in order to avoid mispronunciation.

Bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones (no relation to the “Father of the American Navy”) was the utility man of the group, playing just about everything that was not drums, guitar or harmonica. His mandolin work on Going to California makes that song the acoustic, down-volume gem that made our parents think that the band wasn't all that bad after all. If you were one of the lucky ones who saw the Dave Rawlings Machine concert a couple years ago at the Bijou, you witnessed Jones (now a cog in that Machine) playing that selfsame solo with Rawlings and Gillian Welch singing.



Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Thrillingly Diverse

The Big Ears Festival is here!  It seems that the average Knoxvillian knows less about the Festival than the world indie/avant-garde community does.  I will try to explain it.

Think of Bonnaroo.  Four intense days of Pop and Rock music-making, about two hours west of Knoxville in Manchester, Tennessee; a 21st-century Woodstock, largely enabled by Knoxville's cultural ambassador to the world, Ashley Capps.  Now think of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC.  Two weeks of classical, jazz, and contemporary music, as well as drama, performance art and dance.  Big Ears, under the curation (again) of Ashley Capps, melds these two concepts into an urban interdisciplinary carnival, with some of the more cutting-edge acts from Bonnaroo, and the more progressive aspects of Spoleto.

For the KSO's part, we will be performing three works on Thursday night at 7 p.m. that date from 2001, 2012, and 2013.  Philip Glass's Cello Concerto No. 2, Naqoyqatsi will open the program, with guest solo cellist Maia Beiser.  Bryce Dessner's Lachrymae, for strings, will follow, and the concert ends with John Luther Adams' monumental Become Ocean.  Guest conductor Steven Schick, from the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra in San Diego, will lead the orchestra through these classics-to-be.  It's interesting to note that Bryce Dessner, in addition to being a Grammy-winning composer, has also been nominated for a Grammy with his band, the National, with whom he is a guitarist.  He contributed music featured on the soundtrack to the film The Revenant.

Too many great performances are approaching this weekend to mention in the space and time I have, especially given the intense preparation I feel is necessary to do justice to our portion of the Festival. Suffice it to say that as a Knoxvillian, I am thrilled that the eyes-- and Ears-- of the world will be focused on Knoxville once again this weekend.