KSO opens the 2021-22 season with sparkle and substance – Arts Knoxville
BY ALAN SHERROD
A almost dreamlike and otherworldly feeling permeated the Tennessee Theater last Thursday and Friday night as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra began its 2021-22 season of Masterworks concerts. After juggling their vaccination certificates, satisfying contraband checkers, and offering the now ubiquitous barcodes on smartphones or flyers for entry, the arriving members of the public then wandered – somewhat stunned – through the lobby, secretly delighted and grateful to be where the music was once again, even if they didn’t quite recognize their friends behind the masks. It all added to the excitement and sense of significance of the occasion, made eerily complex by the twists and turns of life in a pandemic that have been endured for the past 18 months or so.
While returning to pre-pandemic audience levels is an ongoing task for the KSO, some of the obvious reluctance to attend public events is understandable. It would also be understandable if the orchestra’s own performance at concerts indicated restless nerves or hesitation at the start of the season. Miraculously, it wasn’t. This daringly programmed and beautifully performed concert of works by Valerie Coleman, Antonio Vivaldi and Edward Elgar featured solid ensemble playing and satisfying orchestral balance in which brass, percussion, winds and strings seemed to be one and the same. .
The main work of the evening was that of Antonio Vivaldi The four Seasons, the group of four baroque string concertos that some might say were made by their own popularity in everything from film scores to ring tones. In general, however, the work can transcend this unfortunate ubiquity when it is intelligently handled and executed with insight and vitality, which it was here. On this occasion, Maestro Aram Demirjian invited Knoxville poet laureate Rhea Carmon and her poetry collective, The Fifth Woman, to reinvent the work with the orchestra. Beautifully presented by Carmon, Heather Davis, Drew Drake and Taria Person, their created text served as either an introduction or an interwoven storyline, all as an exploration and sharing of a year of seasons through the community lens. by Carmon.
Playing on the presence of the perfectly interpreted text, violinist Robyn Bollinger made a compelling case for being the perfect choice for The four Seasons. This impressive violinist, last heard with the KSO several years ago in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, provided intelligent and descriptive phrasing supported by surprisingly energetic and accomplished technique. The clarity and precision of its magnificent razor-sharp edge in the fast and emphatic sections contrasted with a magnificent overall tone. The soloist’s mesh with Demirjian and the string ensemble was everything a Vivaldi lover could have hoped for.
Certainly, combining a musical performance with another form of art, as has been done here, involves risks. For example, adding visuals to a concert work can be awkward or, in some cases, downright destructive to a composer’s intention. In the case of this Four Seasons, however, it worked wonderfully for both music and poetry, the combination creating something new, something more than the sum, or the difference, of its parts.
Demirjian opened the concert with the relatively new orchestral version of Valerie Coleman Umoja: Hymn to unity, handled here by the KSO with skill and precision. The work was originally written as a wind quintet for Coleman’s own chamber music ensemble, Imani Winds, in 2001. The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin commissioned this new version in 2019. The work is a journey through America, not so much a journey of geography, but one of the historical issues that have threatened us and continue to do so. As a result, the work is a sophisticated blend of edges and substance, reality and abstractions, which cross a range of emotions and a diversity of instrumental colors to explore the theme of the work.
While we may have entered the theater in a dreamlike state, the closing work transported us into the night with a different emotion. There was really no conundrum about including Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations as the only work in the second half of the evening’s program. Certainly popular and often performed, the work is extremely accessible and eternally melodious with moments of irresistible touch. The added attraction of Elgar’s unsolved conundrum–“across and on the whole, another larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played …” – make it a bit like a lovable, but eccentric uncle.
Demirjian pulled off a nice overview with the work, properly surveying the variations and smoothing out any episodic pitfalls that can slow the song down. Responding to the maestro’s demands, the orchestra delivered a beautifully shaped and textured work that was a rich display of dynamics. Individually, there were beautiful showcase moments and section shine in a number of variations: violist Katherine Gawne in the 6th variation (“Ysobel”) and cellist Andy Bryenton in the 12th (BGN). Of course, the 9th variation (“Nimrod”) lived up to its popular reputation for producing verklempt reactions, performed here with great and noble emotion. The final movement, the self-portrait of “EDU” Elgar, was full of strength, energy and optimism – certainly the right characteristics with which to end a concert as we regain our foothold in music and enter tomorrow with hope. and determination for better days. .