Thursday, October 31, 2013

Opening Chamber Classics Concert This Weekend

The 2013-14 KSO season rolls along this week with Young People’s Concerts (YPCs) Wednesday through Friday and Chamber Classics on Sunday afternoon, all under the baton of Resident Conductor James Fellenbaum.

This year’s YPCs have a game show theme. Several orchestra members will try their hand at acting, answering musical questions in games modeled after The Price is Right, Jeopardy, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and Family Feud. Musical selections by Beethoven, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and many more will be played in a show that is highly interactive. A talented young local pianist, William Crowe, will solo on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue after a little skit based on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader. The shows are geared toward 3rd through 5th grades.

On Sunday, November 3 at 2:30, an Italian-themed Chamber Classics concert will take place at the Bijou Theatre. UT piano professor David Brunell will solo in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with us, and three works with Italian flavor will be served. Rossini’s exuberant Overture to L’Italiana in Algeri, Respighi’s elegant Ancient Aires and Dances, and Stravinsky’s effervescent Pulcinella: Suite round out the program.

Mention Pulcinella to orchestra musicians and you will hear “Aaaahhh....” It is a quite accessible work, yet still has that unmistakable Stravinsky glint in its eye. Based on music originally thought to be composed by the Italian composer Pergolesi, this suite pulled from a full ballet score is considered to be a harbinger of Stravinsky’s neo-classical style period.

You gain an hour this weekend. Why not spend it at the Bijou?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Classics Galore

The weekend whizzed by and stuff happened that I just totally whiffed on. I hope word got out about these events. Nestled in amongst Knoxville Opera’s Tales of Hoffman performances were a couple of orchestra concerts of note. And by now, a happy trio of violinists and a pianist have delivered some Beethoven to the UT campus.

The Oak Ridge Symphony performed on Saturday night, the 26th, with Maestro Dan Allcott on the podium. Wesley Baldwin, professor of cello at UT, and Wei Tsun Chang, professor of violin at Tennessee Tech., teamed up for Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello, op. 102. Around this centerpiece were arranged Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, Schubert’s 2nd, and Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi. Some sweet tunes there.

Sweet tunes Sunday evening also, as hot on the heels of Hoffman was the UT Symphony Orchestra responding with a fine, varied program. Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture, Wagner’s Siegfrid Idyll, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, and Sibelius’ Finlandia in another orchestra concert conducted by a cellist!

No cellists were harmed in a concert just last night though, wherein KSO violinists Sean Claire, Ilia Steinschneider and Gordon Tsai continued the Beethoven violin sonata cycle in UT’s luscious new Recital Hall. Pianist Kevin Class went the distance with all three blokes for the keyboard victory.

AND the first frost came a little early this year, had to clear out the garden suddenly.

AND the World Series is on.

AND it’s Halloween.


Beethoven Boys!! Left to right: Ilia Steinschneider, Gordon Tsai, Sean Claire, Kevin Class.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Tale of "Tales"

Although he composed a wealth of operettas, songs, ballet and chamber music, Jacques Offenbach’s current fame as a “2-hit wonder” is based on the “Can-can” from the opera Orpheus in the Underworld, and the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman, the Knoxville Opera Company’s current offering (Friday, Oct. 25 at 8:00; Sunday, Oct. 27, 2:30; both at the Tennessee Theatre). Mid-19th-century Paris was crawling with opera and ballet composers; Bizet, Delibes, Massenet, Halévy, Auber, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, etc, so to keep up with all of these composers’ accomplishments is a challenge. I will say, as a cellist, that Offenbach’s output in the area of cello duet repertoire is a vastly underrated and sadly neglected body of work. Hoffman stands out as a mature, robust anomaly; a serious opera from an era when comic opera was the order of the day. Sadly, Offenbach didn’t live to see its premier, which was completed by Ernest Guiraud and Offenbach’s 18-year-old son Auguste.

Soprano Talise Trevigne is featured in multiple roles, returning after her fine portrayal of the title role in Massenet’s Manon in 2011. Her hilarious Doll Song is a harkening back to Offenbach’s opera comique roots, and Ms Trevigne does not disappoint. Tenor Evan Bowers performs the title role, and Boris van Druff (Pirelli from last season’s Sweeney Todd; man, I still can't believe that was only last season) continues his merry pranks with a humorous falsetto aria.

My experience with the several different productions of Hoffman with which I have been involved has been enjoyable, but one particular performance can only be described as “scary as hell.” In the summer of 2005 the Des Moines Metro Opera produced Hoffman at the Simpson College home of that company. KSO violinists Edward and Mary Pulgar were also in the pit for this production.

The Blank Performing Arts Center has a proscenium stage which brings the action out in front of the orchestra, and is connected by two bridges to the main stage, similar to the Clarence Brown Theatre set-up. In this arrangement, some of the action occurs just behind the conductor.In the epilogue, a completely plastered Hoffman careens on stage and lands on a chair that is waiting for him. In this particular performance however, the chair was too close to the conductor, the floor was too slippery, the tenor was too rambunctious in his portrayal of a drunk, whatever. Hoffman slid in the chair, crashing into the wooden wall (bulkhead?) separating the orchestra pit from the proscenium stage, and the wall, weighing about 125 pounds, caved in- right on to conductor Dr. Robert Larson’s head! So while the principal cellist to my left scrambled to push the plywood wall away from the conductor, the show went on without missing a beat, although our hearts certainly did.

We at the KSO and KOC are not hoping for this kind of excitement at our Friday and Sunday productions. The talented cast is providing sufficient thrills, thankyouverymuch.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Beauty Is Truth...

Our maestro has hit a home run with his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, In Truth, at the Tennessee Theatre Thursday and last night. Pianist (and the work’s dedicatee) Jeffrey Beigel, in his fifth appearance with the KSO, gave a splendid performance of the work. A year and a half in the works, In Truth’s three movements represent expressions of truth as pertains to being true to one’s self, true to the world, and true to one’s spirit. The first movement is declamatory yet melodic, bringing to mind the pacing of Rachmaninov’s concerti. The middle movement uses asymmetric ostinati (repeated rhythmic figures) and some high-octane ragtime to bring its points across. The finale is patiently lyrical and in the end recalls the first movement’s themes to complete a circle of truth.

In Truth is approachable from both the musicians’ and the audience’s standpoints. Appearing on our stands just seven days ago, the music was challenging but intriguing. Only minor dynamic adjustments were necessary in rehearsals to create balanced voicings of Maestro Richman’s sonic dreams. The audience reactions both nights were enthusiastic and genuine. As the work is performed by more and more orchestras beyond the member groups in the consortium of orchestras that commissioned the work, it seems clear that In Truth will “get some legs,” (to quote the maestro), and easily find its way into the music folders of musicians and the ears of listeners.

I will never forget the look on Maestro Richman’s face at the end of the first movement on Thursday night. Words like joy, marvel and fulfillment all fall short of describing the glow on his face from having heard his efforts come to fruition. In the future I will think fondly back at these two nights, and that look of contented achievement will stay with me forever.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Train of Thought

We hear train whistles all the time. There’s a level crossing about 4 blocks away from our house, and each train’s unique blast sounds a chord that could be plotted on a piece of music paper. The Concertmaster Series shows have been known to be graced by a train whistle once in a while. As often as I can, I notice the “spelling” of the chords, as if to plot the “Norfolk Southern progression.”

Samuel Barber’s overture to The School for Scandal starts with a funky D Major chord with an added sharp 5. I don’t know how to explain this other than to say play these notes simultaneously on a piano: D, F#, A and B♭. There’s a train that comes through every couple months that blows this exact chord, it’s uncanny. I’ve been waiting for years to play the Barber just because it’s a gorgeous, clever, uplifting piece, and I will get my wish this Thursday and Friday at 7:30.

There’s a Beatles song entitled I Want to Tell You, it features some of the most out-of-tune harmonies you could ever hope to hear, so laughable that they are charming. At the end of every chorus, they sing “I’ve got tiiiiiiime...” It’s a first-inversion A Major chord, except the C# and the E sort of gravitate towards each other. This is a common whistle-tone chord that I have heard in other cities. When I hear it, I’m thinking “I’ve got time,” unless, of course, it’s the whistle of my train leaving. (This has actually happened to me, in Greenville, SC, where I was catching a train to attend an audition in DC). We won’t actually be performing that song this week, but...

Gershwin’s An American in Paris starts out in the streets of Paris with car horns0p------=0 (I swear, my cat just typed that...) There are three of them that the percussion section wields, loud klaxon horns that have a substantial technical requirement. Squeezing those bulbs is tricky; thank goodness they don’t have to be driving taxis around while they do it. But seriously folks, the Gershwin is a goldmine of rich orchestration and jazzy, feel-good content that will leave you humming its tunes for days.

Lucas Richman’s brand new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: In Truth awaits us at rehearsal today like that big huge gift under the Christmas tree that everyone, especially piano soloist Jeffrey Beigel, wants to unwrap. I’ll try to add a few lines about that anon, but this is a pretty busy week and I have a train to catch...

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Choral Music Where It All Began

We are preparing for Thursday night’s concert of music by Rheinberger and Haydn at Church Street United Methodist Church. The two works are completely new to me, and I am enjoying the discovery process. The only other work I have played by Rheinberger is his Nonet, which my wife and I performed years ago in a nonet bash at the Pollard Auditorium in Oak Ridge. (There were also nonets by Ludwig Spohr and Bohuslav Martinu). Rheinberger’s music is best described as “almost Brahms, with a dash of Elgar.” I have of course played a lot of Haydn, but never his Theresienmesse. The style of this mass is like that of his Seven Last Words for string quartet, resembling Beethoven (his student!) more than Mozart. The choirs are the Church St. Church’s own choir and the Knoxville Chorale. The soloist in Rheinberger’s Organ Concerto is the church’s own organist, Edie Johnson. Soprano Jami Anderson, mezzo-soprano Lauren Lyles, tenor Alex Ward and bass Daniel Webb are the soloists for the Haydn mass.

Jami Anderson grew up in Knoxville and her father was the choirmaster at Church Street from 1979 to 2008. When she sang her first notes at rehearsal Tuesday night, I realized that her voice had its upbringing here; I could almost hear the walls saying, “so nice to hear you again, Jami!” All of the voices are familiar, or will be soon. Ms Lyles will be appearing in Knoxville Opera’s Tales of Hoffman, coming up later this month. Daniel Webb was featured in this past May’s Chamber Classics concert performing Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles, and Alex Ward portrayed Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd last season.

The church itself is a work of art; tons and tons of Crab Orchard stone, Gothic grandeur and a fine, 1967 Aeolian-Skinner organ. When FDR was en route to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for its dedication in1940, his route took him past Church St. Church, and he is said to have remarked, “That is the most beautiful church I have ever seen.” It was also, almost 80 years ago now, the site of the first concert of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra as we know it today, under the direction of Bertha Walburn Clark.

People pay a lot of money in Europe to tour grand, historic churches that look like this. For a mere $10, you can experience the church AND the music of Haydn and Rheinberger on Thursday night at 7:30.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Kodaly, Strauss and Schubert at Remedy Coffee

The Concertmaster Series has its first installment of the season this week. I am thrilled and blessed to be performing two works this Wednesday and Thursday evenings that are keystones in their respective chamber music genres. The concerts will be at Remedy Coffee in the Old City, 125 W. Jackson Ave., and start at 7:00. There will be a cookies-and-coffee reception following chamber music by Kodály, Richard Strauss and Schubert.

Kodály’s op. 7 Duo for violin and cello has long been on my list of favorite pieces, and Concertmaster Gabe Lefkowitz and I will be performing the 1st movement Allegro serioso, non troppo. What does this tempo marking mean? Seriously allegro? Fast and serious, but not too fast? Or not too serious? The music seems very serious to me, but I suppose that it can be played too fast, hence the non troppo. (Italian for “not too much).”

The work uses the Dorian mode and the pentatonic scale, both elements of the Eastern European folk music that Kodály and Bartok so meticulously catalogued. After the opening theme is stated, an ostinato (repeated rhythmic accompaniment figure) is traded between instruments. I can’t decide whether this figure comes out of nature (could be a birdcall, perhaps an edgy loon?) or technology (could be Morse Code), but it is highly entertaining and serves as a rhythmic basis for the pyrotechnics that follow.

My go-to recording of the piece is of cellist Janos Starker and violinist Josef Gingold, which I recorded off the radio in college, back when lps were used at classical radio stations. So despite static from bad reception, scratches from the record they were broadcasting, and tape hiss from my tape sitting for decades in a shoebox, Maxell tape once again proves immortal.

Gabe and pianist Kevin Class will combine on Richard Strauss’ op.18 Sonata for Violin and Piano in E♭. This is early Strauss, think the first Horn Concerto and the Cello Sonata and you’re on the right track. E♭is a heroic key shared by both of Strauss’ horn concerti and his tone poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Gabe will get to play the role of the Strauss hero this time, as the Heldenleben violin solos, which were programmed on Gabe’s audition concert, are actually a musical representation of the hero’s love interest. (Although I must say that Gabe’s performance of them was nothing less than heroic).

This work from 1887 and the Schubert Piano Trio in B♭ from 1828 stand at opposite ends of the Romantic Era. What a long strange trip it had been. There isn’t much to say about the Schubert that hasn’t already been said by much smarter people than me, except that if you liked his Trio in E♭ which was performed in the spring of 2012 at the Bijou, you will like this trio even more. Words about the Schubert B♭ can best be found on a sampler on our music room wall that my sister gave us:

                For heights and depths no words can reach,
                music is the soul’s own speech.