What a difference a day can make.
With a flourish and a grand gesture of au revoir, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra finished its 2011-12 Masterworks season last weekend with its usual pair of concerts: "A Touch of France," covering four works by French composers. As usual, time permitting, I had the opportunity to hear both evenings' performances, although that luxury is rarely necessary given that the pair generally differs only in what one expects from live music. On this occasion, however, the Friday evening performance particularly came alive in comparison to Thursday's—perhaps because of its finality—in ways that were really quite exhilarating.
The most noticeable contrast in this regard came with the closing work, Claude Debussy's La Mer, the composer's three-movement seascape and most famous journey into musical pictorialism. Subtitled "Three Symphonic Sketches," they are more aptly full-blown tone paintings that capture the moods—and the composer's impressions—of the sea. By Friday evening, conductor Lucas Richman had settled into what one expects from the vivid, lush Romanticism of dynamic swells and the subtle ebb and flow of rhythms. The detailed musical brush strokes come by way of the challenging array of instrumental textures, of which La Mer is a feast. Particularly noteworthy was the final movement, "Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea," in which the orchestra painted the storm-like sequence with achingly sensitive nuances from woodwinds and strings and bold crashes from the brass and percussion.
The Croatian pianist Martina Filjak was the focus of the first half of the evening, joining Richman and the orchestra for Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. The concerto, one of two Ravel completed simultaneously in 1931, has obvious reminders of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and the energy of 1920s jazz. Despite the 20th-century textures, the concerto has the traditional fast-slow-fast concerto form. The opening Allegramente was one of driving energy and Gershwin-esque syncopation, marred only by a bit of tepid trumpet work. The slow movement, though, was quite the contrast—it takes one by surprise with its pulsing, languid pace and introspective passages. Of particular note here was the gorgeous and haunting extended duet section between Filjak and the English horn, beautifully played by Elizabeth Telling. Filjak then took the Presto finale movement into amazing territory with virtuosic and unrelenting flurries of notes that pepper the air, underlined by interjections by brass and quirky, bluesy commentary from flutes and clarinets.
Opening each half of the program were two opera curtain-raisers: the Overture to Mignon by Ambroise Thomas and the Overture to Le Roi d'Ys by Edouard Lalo. Richman gave the Thomas piece a beautiful arc, passing from the achingly slow opening (with a gorgeously played horn passage by Jeffery Whaley) through dance-like gaiety into a push and pull, bang-bang finale. The Lalo overture was a bit darker in tone—but no less satisfying—with orchestration textures that possess delicious moments of Wagnerian influence amid some quintessential French romanticism.
At the beginning of the season I mentioned the numerous personnel changes in the orchestra, some of which were interim principal positions. Although there may be changes in the roster for the 2012-13 season, these are brilliant musicians who have played a major role in the noticeable solidity and heightened performance quality demonstrated by the orchestra this season. They deserve thanks for a job well done—principal flute Ebonee Thomas, principal clarinet Peter Cain, and principal horn Jeffery Whaley. Hopefully, as the orchestra says au revoir to the season and to some members, it won't be so much a sad goodbye, as an optimistic "until we meet again."