Tuesday, March 12, 2013

High-Octane Octet

The lucky ones who will attend the Concertmaster Series this Wednesday and Thursday at Remedy Coffee, (7 pm) will be treated to a performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings by the “inner circle” of string players of the Knoxville Symphony. The work is a euphemism for childhood genius, written when he was just 16 (SIXTEEN). High-octane fortissimo passages seamlessly melt into tender, lyrical sections and games of musical "bloody knuckles." It is full of impish levity that only a 16-year-old could concoct, yet as mature as anything Strauss or Beethoven wrote as old men. Contrast this with Beethoven’s opus 3 String Trio (also in Eb), written when Beethoven was 23; an awkward, stodgy work bound by classical-period conventions, which Beethoven had not yet learned to sidestep.

The first movement introduces the “main characters.” Rather than splitting the duties cleanly between a pair of string quartets, there is far-flung free association and antiphony among the players according to the size and register of the gesture Mendelssohn is trying to create. The andante second movement is the “slow movement,” but the triplet accompanying figures that span most of the movement keep a breathless excitement in the air despite of the slow-ish tempo. After playing this movement I feel like saying, “He was 16 when he wrote this. SIXTEEN. When I was 16, (to quote David Letterman), I was out getting stuck under the garage.” The scherzo 3rd movement is a test for fine bows; flying spiccato, ricochet and a bevy of trills, in a texture whose dynamic never rises above piano. Here, the forest gnomes and sprites that inhabit Mendelssohn’s very next composition, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are field-tested and put through their paces and found to be quite sound, thank you. The presto final movement literally ties everything together, using themes from the scherzo and from Handel’s Hallelujiah Chorus as well as an original, rapid-fire fugue subject to complete a rich musical palette never heard before or since.

The Concertmaster Series is by no means the only thing going on with the KSO this week. A quartet is going to the Karns library for a Story Time concert Wednesday at 10 am, we just this morning played our “Scientific Symphony” Young People’s Concerts at Greeneville’s Niswonger Performing Arts Center, and a Barbra Streisand Tribute Pops concert will occur Saturday night at the Civic Auditorium with Ann Hampton Callaway. Take in some live music this week; you won’t be sorry.

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