All Tchaikovsky, All the Time

KSO delivers a mesmerizing performance of the Russian composer's works

Of all the composers whose bodies of work can justify a concert dedicated to them, none has been a victim of the whims of musical fashion and the rise and fall of public and critical opinion more than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Through the years, Tchaikovsky has enjoyed waves of intense popularity, particularly due to his theatrical ballet scores for The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty; the 1812 Overture; his last three symphonies; and the Violin Concerto. But often, the impact of this emotional—perhaps even over-hyped—popularity has been to overshadow a range of critical estimations of his music. Last weekend, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra gave concertgoers an opportunity to evaluate this range in an all-Tchaikovsky concert of three works.

Maestro Lucas Richman opened the concert with the seldom-played Hamlet: Fantasy Overture in F Minor. Although originally intended as an overture for a charity production in St. Petersburg of Shakespeare's play, the project never materialized and Tchaikovsky expanded his sketches into a fuller symphonic tone poem. Like much of Tchaikovsky's music, this work could easily suffer greatly from deadened tempos—or be energized, as it was by Richman in the Friday evening performance, into a mesmerizing work with a living, breathing pulse. However, the work's poetry depends on the vitality of its descriptive pieces, rather than its whole—pieces such as single horn notes, the punctuation of timpani, carefully enunciated ascending and descending string motifs, and Ophelia's achingly beautiful lament taken by the oboe of KSO principal Phylis Secrist.

Guest cellist Reynard Rott joined Richman and the KSO to conclude the first half of the program with Variations on a Rococo Theme in A Major for Cello and Orchestra. The work was written in 1876 for cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen—and altered by him from Tchaikovsky's original—with the seven variations growing from a simple melodic theme that recalls the 18th century but was Tchaikovsky's own.

One immediately noticed Mr. Rott's cello tone: bright and refreshing, contrasting nicely in timbre with the other strings, and with no hint of over-resonant stolidness. Refreshing, too, was his interpretation: highly articulated and entertaining, with tempos that bordered on electric.

In a Baroque-like fashion, the variations are linked by ritornellos that featured delightful color from the KSO woodwinds in instrumental combinations reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's ballet scores. In the fifth variation (Allegro moderato), the flute even gets the theme, with Rott's cello providing embellishment. The sixth variation (Andante) was a bit wistful, with the cello's melancholy being answered by the flute and the clarinet. The final Allegro vivo was a storm of energy with Nadine Hur's flute driven to answer Rott's cello. The variation ends, bursting from a long tunnel into the light, with an impassioned rush.

The rich resonance of the Tennessee Theatre was ideal for the work Richman chose to conclude the Tchaikovsky concert: the Symphony No. 5 in E Minor. While the amazing acoustics of the hall can hold and accentuate every orchestral nuance from shimmering strings to the tiniest percussion effect, it does present challenges of balance for brass-heavy movements such as the symphony's Finale. Richman and the KSO brass sections succeeded in maintaining the power, brilliance, and detail without blatantly overwhelming or diminishing the rest of the orchestra.

Of particular note, of course, is the second Andante movement. It begins in somber strings, but gives way to one of the most beautiful horn solos in the repertoire, played with a luminous tone by KSO principal horn Calvin Smith. A second theme from the oboe is added to the horn in a haunting bit of counterpoint.

To counter the gloomy clouds of fate of the first two movements, Richman appropriately gave the third movement (a waltz instead of a scherzo) a light feel, complete with glowing, dancing strings like those of of Tchaikovsky's ballet works. Tchaikovsky builds the emotion in the fourth movement, faster and faster, with volume and energy. Whether this is Tchaikovsky at his musically passionate best or an example of overblown theatricality is up for debate. The false ending a couple of minutes from the conclusion did trick some obviously overwhelmed audience members into premature applause at Thursday night's performance. Subtle body language can go a long way in that regard; at Friday night's performance, Richman made sure no one left before the end.