In the space of three short months, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra audiences have had the opportunity to see and hear the work of four conductors. The first three were KSO music director Lucas Richman, KSO resident conductor James Fellenbaum, and January's all-Mozart program guest conductor, Edward Cumming. The fourth and latest of these, in last weekend's KSO Masterworks series, was guest Daniel Meyer, who is no stranger at all, having been KSO assistant conductor from 1999-2002 under former maestro Kirk Trevor. Meyer is currently music director of the Asheville Symphony and the Erie Philharmonic.
The evening's program presented Meyer with some interesting practical interpretative extremes. Due to its familiarity with audiences, a work such as Gustav Holst's early 20th-century suite The Planets, the headliner on last weekend's concerts, burdens a conductor with the weight of numerous comparisons. On the other hand, a contemporary work such as Aaron Jay Kernis' Musica Celestis that began the concert, was, more or less, an open door. And that open door let in a real breath of fresh air.
According to the composer's notes, the title Musica Celestis refers to the medieval conception of the singing of angels in heaven. While "heavenly" may be a tall order, the Friday evening performance of Musica Celestis was, in a word, breathtaking. The opening of this work for strings is an ethereal, slowly changing journey, unencumbered by the gravity of an obvious tonal center, amid hints of the spaciousness of a medieval cathedral. When the harmonic resolution comes, it is something of a Copland-esque moment in which a simple hymn-like phrase varies through a central section of lushness alternating with dissonance. The tight ensemble playing by the KSO strings was impressive, while the exposed violin passages were beautifully rendered by KSO Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz and his associate, Gordon Tsai.
Gustav Holst's seven-movement astrological "mood" suite, which covered the second half of the concert, was immensely popular in the years following its creation and up until the composer's death in 1934. The last 30 years or so have seen a marked reawakening in its popularity, certainly among orchestras outside the large cities and among audiences seeking the big aural experience that comes with a huge orchestra. Because of this ubiquity, conductors have had to seek a balance between their own sensibilities and the factors of impressive volumes, instrumental textures, exciting tempos, and moments of post-Romantic lushness.
This was a bold, dynamic performance, with Meyer choosing the route of accelerated tempos throughout—with mixed results. In the case of "Mars," the fast tempo drew one gleefully into the fevered excitement of the impressive brass, percussion, and their explosions; "Mercury, the Winged Messenger," full of changing meters and flitting details, is really all about speed. However, the Adagio movements, "Venus" and "Saturn," did not really benefit from faster tempos. Lovely, lush "Venus" seemed quite rushed, textural details squashed, and its romance diminished. Similarly, the pulsing and swelling harmonies of "Saturn" became a bit one-dimensional in the absence of a more deliberate pace.
The Planets, of course, is a feast for the expanded brass sections, which have opportunities for subtlety—although fortissimo generally ruled the day. Among the numerous notable moments was principal horn Jeffery Whaley's perfectly turned phrase that opens "Venus." In the concluding movement, "Neptune," Meyer finally allowed the expanded woodwinds some attention as well. The movement ends in much the same way the concert began—shimmering and ethereal. In this case, the lovely, perfectly balanced off-stage voices of the women of the Knoxville Chamber Chorale drifted away into the limitless expanse of space.
It is amazing to most listeners today how anyone could have actually mistaken the "Handel Viola Concerto in B Minor," that concluded the first half of the concert, as a genuine work by George Frideric Handel. The work was introduced by Henri Casadesus and his Society of Ancient Instruments in 1924 as a discovery of a lost Handel work, when in fact it was by Casadesus' own hand and probably for the purposes of augmenting the solo repertoire for the viola. Although the orchestration is very un-Handel-like, and some melodic moments are reminiscent of J.S. Bach, the concerto is a charming piece that has served its purpose for viola soloists. Meyer's wife, Mary Persin, was the soloist in a performance marked by pleasant, clean agility and a rich, golden viola tone.