As the audience arrived at the Bijou Theatre for Sunday's performance by the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra, there was a noticeable lack of the usual concert tension in the air. Despite the auspicious occasion—a concert featuring the same works found on the very first KSO concert of Nov. 24, 1935—the audience found their seats just as they always have, conversed with those around them, and settled in for the afternoon's music as if a 75th anniversary happens every day. After all, the Bijou Theatre itself, the grande dame of Knoxville's venues after more than a century, never seems to get overly excited, either. Its understated ambience, quiet charm, and amazing acoustics have seen it all during a long lifetime of performances. Perhaps it is that maturity that soothes the jangled nerves of audiences and welcomes both emerging and veteran performers with open arms.
Maestro Lucas Richman, who has visibly perfected the art of relaxing an audience with introductory chat, relaxed them even further by opening the afternoon with a virtually unknown and unheard work, an orchestrated version of Alexander Glazunov's Prelude from Trois Morceaux. Any ice left unbroken at this point was surely melted by the rich harmonic warmth of this little gem. Left unanswered, though, is the question of how and why Bertha Walburn Clark, the KSO's founder and first music director, might have known of this work and thought to include it on that first concert.
On that concert in 1935, Clark also included a movement from Mozart's Concerto No. 20 in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra, featuring a 26-year-old pianist, Evelyn Miller. Likewise, Richman invited in as his soloist the young Knoxville pianist Slade Trammell, who, at roughly the same age that Miller was in 1935, was making his debut with the KSO.
As with much of Mozart's mature work, this concerto has onion-like layers of structural complexity hiding behind a mask of simplicity. Trammell understood well that complexity and, notwithstanding a few practically imperceptible nervous slips, had little problem with the understated virtuosic demands of the work. As a pianist, he achieved a mastery of tone, coaxing velvety ripples from the fast passages, and solid clear statements from the slower and simpler ones.
To my ear, though, it is the gorgeous second movement, Romanza: Andante – Presto – Andante, that is the test of a pianist's philosophical maturity in this concerto. The simple little melodies in the piano can be played mechanically straight, as Trammell did, but that ignores the emotional response that can be achieved with tiny, subtle gradations of tempo and note taking that can lift the phrases away from the merely ordinary.
The piano begins the final Rondo movement, and Trammell tore into it with an exhilarating lightning tempo. Richman then brought the orchestra in without slacking in the least; Trammell relaxed his pace on his next entrance, a nice contrast that brought everything inward. This was a perfect setup for Trammell's own third movement cadenza, a refreshingly creative change of pace.
After the sad waltz-like dream of Jean Sibelius' Valse Triste, a concert adaptation of incidental music for the play Kuolema, the KSO concluded the afternoon with more Mozart. This time it was the really engaging and satisfying performance of the Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K.543. Richman admitted in his prefatory remarks that in the 1935 opening concert, the orchestra had performed only two of the four movements of the symphony. This is actually quite understandable, given that the early KSO was largely comprised of amateur musicians who may have struggled with Mozart's demands of playing stamina and technique. That 1935 audience no doubt lacked listening stamina as well.
Things have certainly changed in 75 years. The orchestra now exudes confidence in works like the Mozart symphony. The finale movement that rushes along, throwing off phrases that echo back in the woodwinds, was a beautiful example of polished ensemble playing. However, the ingenuous charm does not come easily. Given that the movement is really an expansion on a single theme, the beauty here is in the details of instrumental color and dynamic control. The final phrase, with its abrupt conclusion that leaves one hanging a bit, is perhaps the perfect metaphor for an orchestra that leaves its audience wanting more.