Guest conductor appearances with orchestras have become an essential part of the international classical-music scene over the past decades, benefiting everyone, it seems—audiences, orchestra members, management, and the conductors themselves. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra has employed the practice over the last several years for its January Masterworks concerts with very positive and entertaining results, the most recent being last week's visit by conductor Sean Newhouse. For the KSO, however, the situation has a slightly different significance this season, as the search for music director Lucas Richman's replacement begins to be discussed.
Although few listeners might have predicted it, last weekend's Tennessee Theatre concert of works by Johann Strauss II, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart turned out to be a real eye-opener. Granted, the traditional New Year's/Viennese-flavored waltz-heavy program was not designed to offer any particular challenges to listeners or to venture into new musical territory. Nevertheless, under Newhouse's extremely capable baton, the orchestra turned out performances that were impeccable in style, art, and craft.
Opening and closing the evening were two works by Strauss—the overture to Die Fledermaus and the Emperor Waltzes. Newhouse brought a remarkable freshness to the familiar works by offering a perfect stylistic statement of the waltz genre, carried out by wonderfully nuanced ebb-and-flow rhythmic pacing and attention to the details of balance that allowed Straussian colors to glisten.
One of the hard-to-define qualities of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is its ability, in the right hands, to transcend Classical period definitions and take on an aura of timelessness. Newhouse managed this feat quite amazingly, aided by the guest soloist for the evening, the 26-year-old Swiss-born pianist Louis Schwizgebel. The subject here was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488), a work that offers a deeply emotional middle Adagio movement surrounded by a sunny, optimistic opening and a happily energetic finale filled with flavorful thematic details.
Schwizgebel's lanky, youthful appearance belied an absolute and entrancing grasp of the work throughout. His intuitive phrasing seemed to have its own exciting language with extended lines and bright, perfectly executed moments of emphasis that always had intent and reason. In the Adagio movement, which moves from sunlight to the twilight of F-sharp minor, Schwizgebel's innate musical maturity showed itself with an introspection that pulled the listener deeper and deeper into Mozart's inner layers. Just as effortlessly, Newhouse kept a tight rein on the moodiness by carefully picking up the tempo coming out of solo passages.
If listeners needed a different perspective on Newhouse's abilities with the orchestra, they got a peek of it with Tchaikovsky's Suite from The Sleeping Beauty. While the ballet-driven score, particularly the final waltz section, has much in common with the sweeping lyricism of the Strauss on the program, the theatrical colorings and instrumental textures for which Tchaikovsky is known provided a diverting variation for the evening. Again, crisp, focused playing and well-thought-out orchestral phrasing and dynamics gave the work the sparkle it deserved.
Mozart returns to the KSO's Chamber Classics Series this weekend in a partial reprise of last November's All-Mozart Masterworks concerts. Included on the program, but now with the smaller chamber orchestra in the more intimate Bijou Theatre, will be the Overture to Idomeneo, Ein Musikalischer Spass ("A Musical Joke"), and the Symphony No. 31 in D Major, "Paris." That fall concert at the Tennessee was certainly chock full of the playful side of Mozart—and the satiric one as well.
If you missed A Musical Joke at that earlier concert, I strongly suggest taking advantage of this repeat opportunity. The work contains deliciously unimaginative and clumsy passages intended to satirize incompetent composers and players of Mozart's day—and a chuckle-out-loud finale. It should be all the more fun with the smaller ensemble and the Bijou's sparkling acoustics.
Also not to be missed is a new work for the orchestra this season, and the highlight of the Sunday afternoon concert—the Concerto No. 1 in G Major for Flute and Orchestra, featuring KSO's principal flute, Ebonee Thomas. Thomas has held the principal position since coming to the orchestra in 2011. Chamber Classic Series audiences may recall her marvelously virtuosic January 2012 performance of the Bach Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor. m