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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

March Mix

Our March Masterworks repertoire provides a wide mix of styles, including works by two vastly different American composers. I'm really enjoying getting to know John Adams' The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra from his 1985 opera Nixon in China. There's a fine complement of percussion that sets up a groove that you can't ignore. The machine like rhythms and the masterful use of orchestral colors will still be pleasantly on your mind in the days following the concert.

Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto is, hands down, the most beloved American violin concerto, despite a rather rocky beginning. It wasn't enough that Barber was forced to flee Switzerland because of the oncoming Nazi menace, delaying composition of the third movement, AND his father was ill. No, it seems the dedicatee's mentor found the work too “easy” and demanded revisions. After a big harangue, the work was finally premiered by someone else, exactly 75 years ago. The first and second movements are highly lyrical with sweeping orchestrations. The moto perpetuo finale is a rollicking romp; a typically Barber-ian mix of intricate virtuosity and cockamamie tunes that will keep you on the edge of your seat-- and on the verge of laughter. The tympani states the opening theme, for Pete's sake! Guest maestro Jacomo Rafael Bairos and violin soloist Elena Urioste have an endearing chemistry, and Elena is from Hartford, so naturally I'm a fan…

Closing the concert will be Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The piece is filtered through the orchestrating lens of Ravel, who took an already legendary piano work in 1922 and turned it into one of the most memorable orchestra showpieces ever. It is somehow fitting that we are performing Pictures here just a few days after the tragic death of British rock keyboardist Keith Emerson. His band, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) performed a freely adapted version --including lyrics!-- of the work in the early 70s. His artistry brought Mussorgsky's tunes (and those of many others) to a whole new audience. 

I hope you are in our audience, this coming Thursday and/or Friday at 7:30 at the Tennessee Theatre.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Name Game

The next few weeks sport the programming of some living composers whose names are confusingly similar. John Adams? John Luther Adams? Schoenberg? I will take it on myself to dispel any perfectly understandable confusion.

The March Masterworks concerts on March 17 and 18 will start with a work by American composer John Adams (b. 1947), The Chairman Dances, from his opera, Nixon in China, which garnered him a Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition. The excerpted work is not a dance, per se; the word “dances' refers to what the Chairman is doing. Mr. Adams' music is characterized as minimalist, and this work is energetic and enchanting. To the best of my knowledge, the composer is not related in any remarkable way to the Presidents Adams from early in our country's history. Many of Adams' works have been performed through the years by the KSO;  Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Gnarly Buttons, Shaker Loops, and the Chamber Symphony come to mind.

The KSO's contribution to the 2016 Big Ears Festival will include another Adams, this time John Luther Adams (b. 1953). Again, not related to the above-mentioned composer, or either president Adams. Also composing with a minimalist bent, Luther Adams' Pulitzer-Prize-winning soundscape Become Ocean will be one of the works presented on March 31 at the Tennessee Theatre. Whereas the Nixon in China music has a driving rhythmic infrastructure, Ocean uses slowly transforming slabs of sound to create waves of tension and spacey, absorbing sonic panoramas. The Big Ears Festival is an Alt-music Happening dedicated to avant-garde music and other media, drawing performers and audience members to Knoxville from every corner of the world, and taking place in 2016 from March 31 to April 2.

Finally, the April 14 and 15 Masterworks shows will open with Finding Rothko, by American composer Adam Schoenberg (b. 1980). Here again, no relation to the esteemed founder of the Twelve-tone method of composition, Arnold Schoenberg. This work uses more traditional compositional techniques with the addition of a bit of aleatoric (chance) note realization. A video featuring our April Guest Maestro Steven Jarvi interviewing the composer and discussing the four Mark Rothko paintings from which is drawn the inspiration for Finding Rothko is linked here.