Thursday, April 10, 2014

Opera in Bloom

Spring seems to be very shy this year. Its timing seems to be all out of whack; I’ve never seen forsythia bloom so late! Pellissippi Parkway is about to explode with redbud blooms, daffodils, and that other yellow stuff. Years ago there was a sign among the daffodils that said FINE FOR PICKING. It was a creative nuisance, wording the warning that way. A lawyer friend of ours (Bill Mason) challenged us to pick some, stating that our defense would be “It said they were fine for picking!”

Even if spring is late, the Rossini Festival is right on time, and that time is this Saturday! The street fair on Gay Street, the countless performing and visual arts venues, the unsurpassed people-watching, the FOOD– and the operas. The Knoxville Opera Co. and the KSO will be performing Bellini’s Norma on Friday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Tennessee Theatre. UT’s Opera Theatre will be performing Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Carousel Theatre on the UT campus in four performances starting Thursday night.

We’ve just put the finishing touches on Norma. The two very demanding female leads are being sung by J’Nai Bridges and Rochelle Bard, who, to our delight, feel no need to “mark” during rehearsals. This is the “Cadillac” of opera seria duet singing. The aria Casta diva is a storied workout for the soprano and a dramatic challenge for the Stage Director.

My guess is that many opera-goers will go out for drinks after the show, and one or two may order a Bellini, thinking they are being relevant. In actuality, the Bellini is named after the Italian Renaissance artist, Giovanni Bellini. The drink’s concocter, Giuseppe Cipriani, thought the Bellini’s color resembled that of a toga worn by a saint in one of the artist’s paintings. So, know your Bellinis! And call a cab.

The name of the soprano in the premier of Norma was Giuditta Pasta. Pasta diva. Yes, the Rossini Festival is right on time...

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Principal String Quartet Concert Approaching

The Principal String Quartet of the KSO will be performing this coming Sunday at 2:30 at the Bijou. We will open with one of the most well-known of Haydn’s 83 string quartets, his op. 64 no. 5, The Lark. The second movement of this work is the basis for the song I’m in the Mood for Love, which has been recorded by no less than 120 different artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Chaka Khan to the Sex Pistols. I personally am playing this quartet again for the first time in 34 years. I know, it’s scary. Jimmy Carter was president then, and our first violinist, Gordon “Go-go”  Tsai, was just a twinkle in his momma’s eye.

Fast forward a century and a half, cross both the Atlantic and the equator, and you’ll find the roots of the second work on the program, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 1st String quartet. Really more of a six-movement suite, this work was recently performed on our “Q Series” concert nine days ago at the Emporium Center. For a piece with Brazilian origins, it sure uses a lot of impressionistic musical language. It’s no wonder, considering Villa-Lobos spent four years in Paris.

The grand finale of the concert will be Franz Schubert’s magnum opus for the string quartet, the d minor Death and the Maiden quartet. The quartets Schubert composed as a teenager are definitely youthful works compared to this; he himself dismissed them as such. A more mature quartet was composed concurrently with D&TM, his op. 29 Rosamunde quartet.

Schubert’s lot was an unhappy one during the year this was composed (1824); incredibly, at the time of its composition, he was younger than any of the members of the KSO’s Principal Quartet. He was broke and sickly, and his publisher Diabelli was ripping him off royally. Perhaps he had some inkling that he would only live four more years. This work’s mood, especially its tonality, reflects his frame of mind at this time, but it is by no means morose.

The first movement has a hook that is challenged only by the opening phrase of  Beethoven’s 5th symphony for the title of  “Most Dramatic Musical Phrase Ever Written.” The subtitle of the quartet is derived from his 1817 lied of the same name, the theme of which is treated with a set of variations that make up the second movement. After a syncopated, dramatic scherzo (with a mood swing into D Major during the trio section), the tarantella finale brings it all home. Its theme is surely the inspiration for the Civil War era song When Johnny Comes Marching Home (aka The Ants Go Marching), although there is no earthly way that either Johnny or the ants could march as fast as this tarantella’s breakneck tempo.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Big Ears, Big Knees, Big Fun

Here I am on a Saturday night with nothing to do. It’s inconceivable, given the rate at which KSO performances have been whizzing by, but totally welcomed. This weekend in Knoxville the Big Ears Festival is in town. Big Ears is a new music showcase founded by Ashley Capps in 2009, now in its third incarnation. This years Ears will be headlined by Steve Reich and will also feature (among many more) the So Percussion ensemble, John Cale (an original member of the Velvet Underground), The Wordless Music Orchestra, Ensemble Signal, and Nils Frahm.

As I stare out of my window (Sunday morning now), choosing the next words to type, I see runners. Running by our house. Lots of them. In 45-degree weather. In shorts. Oh yeah, it’s the Knoxville Marathon! I’m sure that some KSO members are running in it, although maybe only the half-marathon. I swore off distance running in my twenties; for whatever reason, my knees would stiffen up after about a mile of running, or about eight miles of hiking. It’s weird, I can play soccer or basketball pain-free until I pass out from exhaustion, but just straight running is too much of a muchness for my knees. I know that violinist Sean Claire doesn’t have that problem. He outlined his weekend schedule for me at the Tellico Village runout the other night. He was to play Carmina Burana with the Symphony of the Mountains in Kingsport last night, returning from that ‘round midnight, then awaken at 5:00 (AM) to warm up for the marathon. I feel like such a slacker. GO SEAN!!!! Here are some other KSO folks who were up way before me today. Left to right, Gordon Tsai, Rachel Loseke, Gray Ferris, Gabe Lefkowitz, Stacy Miller

The Knoxville scene continues to evolve next weekend, when the Dogwood Arts Festival unfurls its petals for the 52nd  time. This all-encompassing showcase of blooms, music and the arts in general will last throughout April and kick off in a big way next weekend with a festival within a festival, Rhythm and Blooms, which does for Roots and Americana music what Big Ears does for avant-garde music. Nine venues will host a who’s who of local and national talent, including Logan Brill, who, accompanied by the KSO, graced the Ijams Nature Center stage with her presence this past September, Four Leaf Peat, the house band of this past December’s Clayton Holiday Concerts, Knoxville’s own Black Lilies, who are taking the country music scene by storm, and cellist Ben Sollee, who I hope does not need any introduction.

The weekend after that, (April 12) will be the Knoxville Opera Company’s 13th annual Rossini Festival, which will take place at its original downtown venues. (There was talk of moving the Festival to World’s Fair Park, but KOC and City officials hammered out a deal to keep it where it has always been). The theme of this year’s festival will be sunshine, avenging last year’s day-long downpour which scared away quite a few (but by no means all) patrons.

The onslaught of upcoming festivals and events rolls out like this, although this list is far from thorough:

Earthfest, at World’s Fair Park, April 26
Market Square Farmer’s Market, starting May 3 and every Saturday morning through October
60th Annual Cosby Ramp Festival, May 4
Bloomsday, UT Trial Gardens, May 10
Vestival, May 10
International Biscuit Festival, May 15-18
Bob Dylan Birthday Bash, June 6
Bark in the Park, June 14
Pride Fest, June 21

Monday, March 24, 2014

A FETE-- and Q-TETS!

Last night, there was an event in the Old City feting Lucas and Debbie Richman in honor of their involvement with the Stanford Eisenberg Knoxville Jewish Day School. The venue was a relatively new one, called The Standard. A whole host of KSO fans, KJDS supporters and friends were in attendance, and a number of presentations were made, including a very charming PowerPoint collage of interviews with current KJDS drama students. Radio personality Hallerin Hilton Hill gave a short keynote testimonial, and introduced the Principal String Quartet’s performance. We performed three compositions by Maestro Richman, an arrangement of the Jewish Hymn Hine Mah Tov, his Gerhardt Variations, from the score of the film Four Faces, and a set of variations based on Music Can Make Your Life Complete, the theme song of Picardy Penguin. Debbie Richman sang Pure Imagination from the musical Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with the Maestro accompanying her on piano.

It was an interesting venue, to say the least. For years and years, the Standard Wilson Glass Company was headquartered in the building, but they moved to Morgan Street in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood a few years back. I’d bought a variety of windows and screens for our home and had glass installed in a couple of our cars there over the years, but never did I expect to be performing music there, let alone in a tux. Unsure of the exact location, I consulted Google Maps, but the Street View photos they provided showed a pretty abysmal, blighted looking property, obviously taken before the building was renovated! Dewhirst Properties has done a wonderful job with the transformation of the building and I hope to perform there again.


Just down the street, at the Emporium Center for Arts and Culture (home of the KSO office) at 100 South Gay St., another instalment of the new "Q" Series will take place Tuesday at noon. The Principal Woodwind Quintet and String Quartet will bring an eclectic program to a lunchtime crowd.

The String “Q” will perform Heitor Villa-Lobos’ String Quartet No. 1, which is drawn from his 1946 Suite Gracioso. Its six movements are in various moods, ranging from lyrical to impish. The melody of the finale, Saltando como un Saci (Jumping like a jumping bean), bears an uncanny resemblance to Glinka’s Kamarinskaya, frequently played on KSCO runouts. The Woodwind “Q” will present three works, Shostakovich’s charming Polka from the Age of Gold ballet, Henri Tomasi’s colorful Cinq Danses, and Justinian Tamusuza’s Abafa Luli. The concert is free. See you there!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Happy (Branden)Birthday, Mr. Bach!

I played all six Brandenburg concerti yesterday. I don’t feel exhausted, just... enlightened. It really was a Brandenburg-athon; I used that word last week and didn’t realize that the Tuesday double rehearsal was ALL SIX. Two of the slow movements were tacet for me, (honestly, what could I add?) but except for that, 17 movements involved me. It's a different sort of program for the Tennessee Theatre stage, contrasting the orchestration chops of Leopold Stokowski channeled through Bach with the ultimate in Baroque ensemble composition. As you remember from our last episode, Thursday night’s concert will conclude with Brandenburg Concerti 4, 3, and 1, while numbers 5, 6, and 2 will be played Friday, which is Bach's 329th birthday.

The orchestrations were considered quite daring at the time; the combination in No. 2 of flute, violin, oboe and trumpet is like the Free Bird of Baroque concertante music. Gabe Lefkowitz (violin), Phyllis Secrist (oboe) and Ebonee Thomas (flute) are joined by guest trumpeter Ryan Beech, who is playing notes I didn’t even know existed on the trumpet. Brandenburg 6 in particular is a lush, intimate snapshot of the potential beauty that Bach knew was dwelling within all of those old European string instruments. Violists Katy Gawne and Eunsoon Corliss are reprising their awesome performance of a couple of years ago. Most of his contemporaries relied on formulas and templates for their compositions, but Bach took on the challenge of writing pieces that employed the Fibonacci sequence in a beautiful way.

Speaking of chops, you will be amazed to learn (if you don’t know already) that all of the notes we play in the Toccata and Fugue and the Chaconne were originally intended to be played by one person. An organist or a violinist, specifically. True tests for their respective soloists, for sure, but in their orchestrated forms, they are somehow not much easier to play. Resident Conductor James Fellenbaum is right on top of things, leading the full orchestra through these dramatic, iconic tours de force.

I’m not sure if this book was on the syllabus or not, but Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach would be a good thing to take a gander at before either (OR BOTH) of the concerts this week. If you can’t find that, just look at some fractal art, or even a map of the coast of England, then look at some Escher prints, and then take in the concert. You will gain some understanding of what sets Bach apart from the rest of the Baroque crowd.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Indigo Girls and Bach: Something for Everyone

Well, it seems to be snowing. What is it about snow and our Side-By-Side concerts!? I hope it’s just a flurry, because tonight at 7:00, the KSO core strings will team up with the Bearden High School Orchestra strings. Under the capable hands of Katie Middleton they’ve been working hard at a Mozart Divertimento, a Vaughan Williams arrangement of Rhosymedre, and a Dittersdorf Sinfonia Concertante. (You may remember Dittersdorf from an early August post entitled Composers with Funny Names). The Dittersdorf work will have as soloists violist Parker Jones and bassist Kaleb Keller. The KSO strings only will be featured in the final two movements of Holst’s St. Paul Suite.

Looking ahead to the weekend, the Indigo Girls are coming to town Saturday night! I CAN’T WAIT to play Galileo, Closer to Fine, Ghost, and a whole host of other Americana songs that have made this Decatur, Georgia duo an enduring and endearing force on the American Folk scene. If you missed them at Farragut High back in 1998, well, they’ll be at the Civic Auditorium Saturday at 8:00.

Next week brings the Brandenburg-athon, and both Thursday and Friday night’s Masterworks concerts at the Tennessee Theatre will begin with Leopold Stokowski’s timeless arrangements of two solo works of Bach’s, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, and the Chaconne movement from Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin, BWV 1004. Leopold Stokowski was the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1941; surely this is the “Leopold” they had in mind in that episode of Bugs Bunny with the orchestra and the tenor with the shrinking head... It should be known that Friday, March 21 IS J. S. BACH'S BIRTHDAY. The Brandenburg concerti will be arrayed as such: Thursday, 4, 3 and 1; Friday, 5, 6 and 2. Here are some identifying features of each.

#4: We just performed this at the Bijou Theatre; there are two flute soloists and a violin solo. Word on the street is that they sound great!
#3: Depending on how you look at it, this work has either no soloists or nothing but soloists. It is one-on-a-part. Each section plays mostly the same notes with occasional outbursts of cascading three-part harmonies or cadential roulades. The second movement, which is sometimes skipped, consists of two chords and some violin improvisation.
#1: A pair of horns and three oboes are the kingpins of #1. It is the only Brandenburg with 4 movements. The second movement Adagio is drop-dead gorgeous.
#5: This was also recently done at the Bijou by the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra. There is a jaw-dropping virtuoso harpsichord cadenza  in the first movement, played again by Michael Unger. (Mr. Unger will be playing the harpsichord on ALL SIX Brandenburgs). The second movement Affetuoso is a mere trio of solo flute, violin and harpsichord.
#6: This is the most minimalist of the Brandenburgs, with just a pair of violas, a pair of violas da gamba, solo bass, cello, and harpsichord. The viola da gamba is an ancient precursor to the cello that is rarely heard in concert these days. Its similarity to the cello allows the cello to be an acceptable- and more audible- substitute. The first movement has a lot of cool echo effects, and the opening of the last movement was the Minnesota Public Radio jingle for years and years. You will recognize it if you have ever heard the beginning of Prairie Home Companion. 
#2: Soloists for this one are flute, oboe, and trumpet. There are some wicked high passages for the trumpet.

Well it seems to have stopped snowing. I know if I waited long enough it would. Now maybe Old Man Winter will leave us in peace so we can get on with our lives.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Two of the Three B's, Part 2

Gabe Lefkowitz is at it again, bringing violin encores (with pianist Kevin Class) and a Brahms Sextet to Knoxville’s Old City, this Wednesday and Thursday at 7:00 at Remedy Coffee, 125 West Jackson Ave.

Starting the program will be Riccardo Drigo’s Valse Bluette, arranged in 1906 by the great Hungarian violin pedagogue  Leopold Auer. The original provenance of the work, however, is as a pas de deux, Drigo’s contribution to a collectively composed 1903 ballet entitled La tulipe de Haarlem. In his younger years, Drigo was a favorite accompanist of virtuoso violinist Antonio Bazzini, composer of Dance of the Goblins, which Gabe and Kevin performed on last March’s concertmaster series show. If you are still unconvinced of Drigo’s worth to the music world, just be satisfied in knowing that he conducted the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. ‘Nuff sed.

Gabe and Kevin will also be playing Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs, the March from Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, and Introduction and Tarantella by the great Spanish violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate. You know why all of those French composers wrote so convincingly in a Spanish musical idiom? It’s because they were exposed to the playing AND compositions of Sarasate. Lalo’s Symphonie Esapgnole, Bizet’s Carmen, and Saint-Säens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso are just a few pieces that owe their Spanish-ness to knowledge of Sarasate’s work.

The concerts will conclude with the Brahms Sextet in B♭, op. 18. Chamber music is well-served by the “op. 18" moniker; Mendelssohn’s op. 18 is a viola quintet, Dvorak’s is a string quartet, and Beethoven’s is SIX string quartets, which are considered the “Old Testament” (perhaps the Book of Psalms?) of string quartet playing. Richard Strauss’ op. 18 is the Violin Sonata, played by Gabe and Kevin on the Remedy Coffee concerts this past October.

The Brahms is a favorite of string players, always kept in mind whenever pairs of cellists, violists, and violinists are having a glass of wine together. While the music is not easy, the spirit and mood of the work are. The second movement, Andante, ma moderato is a set of “torch song” variations that epitomize the term “Romantic music.” Principal violist Katy Gawne says the variations remind her of La Folia by Corelli. The Scherzo third movement is quirky, and its Trio is in a faster tempo than the Scherzo proper; a very unusual occurrence. The Rondo finale is rich like the first movement, but ends with a snowballing accelerando which is edge-of-your-seat exciting. Early Brahms is a very different animal than mature and late Brahms, and beyond this Sextet, next season will include two essential early works, the Piano Concerto No. 1 on the September 18th and 19th Masterworks pair, and Maestro Richman’s Chamber Classics farewell next May will be the luscious op. 11 Serenade, a symphony in every aspect except its title.