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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Q Series, Take Me Away!

"The Q" is on again this Wednesday at noon at the Square Room downtown. Live chamber music is an unforgettable experience, and after what is sure to be an unforgettable Tuesday, this Q Series offering may prove to be breakfast for you. The menu will feature, in no particular order, music from France, Cuba, Hungary, and Louisville (KY).

The string course of the musical meal will again diverge from the usual quartet formation and consist of Ernö Dohnanyi's Serenade for string trio. In this case new papa Gordon Tsai will be on violin, Katie Gawne on viola, and yours truly on cello. Ernö Dohnanyi (1877-1960) was the teacher of Sir George Solti, and the grandfather of Christoph Dohnanyi, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1981-2002. He is also, imho, THE MOST underrated composer. One hurdle to his wider appeal might be the pronunciation of his name, which can be confounding without a little practice. Let's try it: dock-NON-ye. (The "ch" in "dock" is pronounced as in "loch"). His unique musical language hints at Berlioz, Faure and Brahms, but is flecked with the Romani elements of his native Hungary. This Serenade from 1902 and his Variations on a Nursery Theme for piano and orchestra are his most well-known works, but unfortunately, and unfairly, "well-known" isn't the best word. His plentiful chamber music dossier is just sitting there like a big piece of candy waitin' for a fly to land on it.

The centerpiece of the pristine 5-movement Serenade is its Scherzo, whose cockamamie, breakneck fugue subject in the violin calls to mind any number of cartoon characters falling down a hill. As if that wasn't exciting enough, the viola then layers on its version of the subject. When all three instruments are spilling their crazy melodic strands, Katie bar the door!

Katie barring the door

The Principal Woodwind Quintet will then serve up a smorgasbord of engaging, diverse works, with some doubling occurring. Doubling is when a wind player plays an additional instrument in his/her primary instrument's genre, mainly flute/piccolo and oboe/English horn, as is the case in the Suite: Portraits of Josephine composed by Imani Winds founder Valerie Coleman. This work portrays the life of renowned dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker, whose between-the-wars Paris career inspired Ernest Hemingway to describe her as “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Ravel's Piece en forme de Habañera will be the mellow appetizer, and Cuban jazz patriarch Paquito D'Rivera's captivating Wapango will be the tropical dessert. 

That's Wednesday, November 9th at noon. Until at least then, may God bless America.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Winds

The Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra will present a colorful concert of Latin-American music on Sunday, October 30 at the Bijou Theater at 2:30. We'll be featuring the music of Mexican composer Arturo Marquez (Danzon No. 4), Venezuelan composer Aldemaro Rivera (Fuga con Pajarillo), Aaron Copland (Three Latin-American Sketches), and Astor Piazzolla (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires). The Piazzolla work will spotlight Principal 2nd Violinist Edward Pulgar as soloist. Edward is a seasoned performer and will definitely highlight the zestily-seasoned melodies of the Piazzolla "Seasons."

Perhaps you remember composer Hans Richter, and his “Vivaldi Recomposed,” which the KSO performed at the 2015 Big Ears Festival. Our project with him was a “realignment” of Vivaldi's own music, basically orchestrated “tape loops.” Piazzolla, on the other hand, has composed a thoroughly new piece, with just a few cleverly disguised quotes from Vivaldi's original. The work was originally composed in 1965-70 for violin, bass, electric guitar, piano and bandoneón, but was transcribed for solo violin and strings by Leonid Desyatnikov in 1996-98. I am very much reminded of Heitor Villa-Lobos' music with this piece-- the harmonic thickness and the rhythmic drive-- to the extent that I suspected that Piazzolla had studied with Villa-Lobos. Imagine my surprise to learn that while yes, he was born in Argentina, he moved as a 4-year-old with his parents in 1925 to (ready for this?) Greenwich Village! At age 9 he was studying music with a student of Rachmaninoff, and there's your Knoxville connection! The music sways between lush and explosive, but there will be moments where you will hear stringed instruments played in ways you have probably never imagined.


Another new venture for the KSO involves the Principal Woodwind Quintet and one of Knoxville's “jazz hideouts,” the Red Piano Lounge. Called “Woodwinds After Work,” it is an opportunity to hear wind chamber music while sampling the fine tapas and cocktails on the menu. The inaugural WAW was last May, but the series continues next Tuesday, November 1 at 6:30. The Quintet will play three 20-minute sets and will mingle with concert-goers between sets.  It's a good opportunity to meet our new principal flutist, Johanna Gruskin, who comes to us from Duluth, Minn. via LA's Colburn School of music. Best of all, this performance is FREE, with food and drink available for purchase.  

Thursday, October 20, 2016


This week's collaboration at the Tennessee Theatre with the Knoxville Opera Company on Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance brings us some well-needed silliness.  On the heels of the success of 2014's production of H.M.S. Pinafore, a “British Invasion” of an entirely other sort will “capture” the fancy of young and old alike.  Featured will be UT voice faculty member, bass-baritone Andrew Wentzel, who for 20 years now has been singing the National Anthem at UT football games.  He will be performing INDOORS this weekend...

I remember listening to Gilbert and Sullivan growing up, on LPs on our Sears SILVERTONE record player.  We didn't have room in the living room for one of those console or credenza stereo, but we did have the lovely, “portable” desktop machine pictured below.  It was strictly forbidden to put records on the little shelf on the right side.  Every once in a while, the lid would come down like a guillotine and slice that sucker in half like it was a graham cracker.

At first I was fascinated with the machinery, but by the time I was 6 or so, I started to become intrigued by the music itself.  I was taken by the verbal agility.  I understood what they were saying, but why were they saying it that way?!  I was left with the impression that, wow, England must be an awfully cheerful place if even the pirates were this happy!

Just as Wagner's name is intimately associated with the opera house in Bayreuth, Gilbert and Sullivan's heyday came to be because of a tight coalition of the composers (actually the music is by Arthur Sullivan and the libretto by W. S. Gilbert), the venue (the Savoy Theatre, thanks to which, their body of work has come to be known as the Savoy Operas), and the opera company (the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company).  I just wanted to make sure, so I looked it up-- it's pronounced DOILY Cart.

A cart full of Doilies

D'Oyly Carte

Anyway, my lame attempt at humor here can't hold a candle to the level of hijinks that will be achieved at the shows, this Friday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:30. See you there!!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Italian Masters

The KSO's Masterworks series will continue its musical travels across Europe this Thursday and Friday at 7:30 at the Tennessee Theatre, under the direction of James Fellenbaum. This week's focus will be the music of three Italian composers.  I'm being careful not to describe it as “Italian music” in an ethnic sense, since each of the three composers-- Vivaldi, Rossini and Puccini-- were active in such different eras, and bound by those eras' conventions.  The great Italian vocal tradition is the binding force in the repertoire, as all three wrote operas, with Puccini's and Rossini's fame, at opposite ends of the Romantic Era, relying almost exclusively on opera.

Rossini's Overture to Semiramide (“sem-ee-rom-a-day”) exhibits structural formula and transparent textures left over from the Classical period.  The concitato, or agitated style of rapidly repeated notes, took root with Monteverdi in the 1640s, lived on in the Vivaldi Four Seasons from 1723, and the Rossini from 1823.  Later in the Romantic period it was no longer uniquely Italian and was largely abandoned by the time the grand scale and vocal sweep of Puccini's music made the scene in 1884.

The Capriccio Sinfonico is Puccini's thesis composition for the Milan Conservatory, written at age 24 in 1883.  It includes material from three of his first four operas; Le villi (“The Fairies”), Edgar, and La bohème.  The Intermezzo that opens Act III of his third opera, Manon Lescaut, supplies the second work by Puccini on the concert.

The Four Seasons by Vivaldi is the solo work on this concert, with violinist Giora Schmidt as soloist.  (His first name is pronounced “Ghee-or-a,” with a hard “g” sound as in “guitar”).  It will be easy to notice Vivaldi's operatic tendencies in the Seasons, because of the highly picturesque portrayal of the four seasons as “characters-” it's program music at its finest and the stile concitato is everywhere.  Vivaldi employs major keys for the bulk of the Spring and Fall segments, expressing joy in the more temperate seasons, and minor keys for Summer and Winter, reflecting the harshness of the extremes of weather.  Listen carefully to the second movement of Spring, where the (muted) violas portray far-off barking dogs on a cold early spring night. The concerti will be separated, with Spring and Summer on the first half followed by the two Puccini works (split by an intermission), and ending with Fall and Winter.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Last Weekend and This Weekend

Knoxville turned 225 the other day-- no better excuse for another party in downtown Knoxville! The founding year of 1791 makes Knoxville older than Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, and lots of bigger and uglier towns. In fact, on that date it was declared “the capitol of the Southwest Territories,” and one of 17 state capitols. Georgia encompassed most of Mississippi and Alabama then, with the lower third of those states AND New Orleans AND everything west of the Mississippi River still under Spanish control. The exact date is October 3, 1791, just three months after the Treaty of the Holston.

Before there was a Knoxville Symphony, it seems classical music was largely imported. A major center for the performing arts was Staub's Theatre, which stood on the current site of the Plaza Tower, home of Club Leconte. There were also outdoor performances at Chilhowee Park on the east side of town. Here are a couple images of Staub's, built in 1872 and known subsequently as Lowe's and The Lyric Theatre before it was razed in the early 60s. Wow, just... wow. (Photo courtesy of Will Dunklin).

Although little is known of classical music's influence (if any) in Knoxville at the time, any music aficionado knows that 1791 is also the year of Mozart's death.  In a dual celebration of these occasions, the KSO Principal String Quartet included in their performance Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, from his final year, in Knoxville's Krutch Park this past Saturday morning.  Mild weather and receptive crowds heard us play other Mozart and a special set of variations on Happy Birthday which led into an awesome Bill Pierce arrangement of Rocky Top, and your weekend was off to a great start, WASN'T IT??  (By the way, I hear it is supposed to be pronounced KROOCH Park). Tympanist Michael Combs was in the audience, and shared a snapshot with me.


On July 10, 1966, I turned 5. My family (my parents, 3 sisters and a brother, all older than me) had set off in a Chevy van from Connecticut to many Western points; Yellowstone, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon… 50 years ago. I remember some of it like it was yesterday. I also remember some of the tunes the radio played; Lara's Theme from Doctor Zhivago, Roger Miller's King of the Road, and some Beach Boys songs which captivated my musical siblings and I in a different way than any of the Boys' previous hits had. The Pet Sounds album that came out in May of that year has influenced everyone from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to 2017 Big Ears Festival headliners Wilco. The Tennessee Theatre is the perfect venue to hear Brian Wilson's creation come to life, with a surf music chaser this Friday at 7:30. Wouldn't It Be Nice to see y'all there?