When the last concert in May rolls around, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra audiences have already sadly resigned themselves to the fact that without any sort of summer series in Knoxville, it will be three long months until they see the orchestra again. On the bright side, though, Maestro Lucas Richman and the KSO did everything possible, musically speaking, in last weekend's season finale concert, Pines of Rome, to tide us over until the fall.
The concert itself was a crescendo of efforts (and volume) that began with Maurice Ravel's Ma Mère L'Oye Suite, a gentle set of five evocative accounts of Mother Goose stories. Given Ravel's rich textural orchestral suggestions, it is all the more amazing to realize that the work began life as a piano work. Orchestral birds, often the province of the woodwinds, were heard from screeching violins in "Tom Thumb." The warm, colorful, and exotic "Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas" painted a picture in a Chinese setting with marvelous woodwinds and the first of many feasts of the evening for the KSO percussionists. Although Ravel would probably bristle at the comparison, there was an Elgar-like lyricism and serenity in the final "Enchanted Garden," a piece as lushly pastoral as it gets.
Oddly, despite the presence of the entertaining Respighi on the second half of the program, the understated highlight of the evening for me was Sergei Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63, featuring 22-year old violinist Rachel Lee. The concerto hails from that same 1935 period when Prokofiev was creating his ballet score for Romeo and Juliet, and probably has that ballet to thank for its combination of romance and spring-like lyricism. Lee's physical presentation lacked the ostentatious body and facial language of some recent soloists we've heard, but that perhaps is one of her strengths. One was left with a pure musicality that was emotional and technically precise, yet unencumbered by visual distractions.
The second movement, Andante, is, without a doubt, one of the truly memorable sections for violin from the 20th century. The movement begins with pizzicato strings and clarinet setting a rhythmical backdrop for the violin's gentle, soaring entrance in a theme that is beautiful in its defying of lyrical predictability. It was here that Lee's face betrayed the emotion that was at work within her as she told the story subtly and gorgeously. The movement ends with a touch of brilliance in the reverse of the way it began: The orchestra carries the melody while Lee's violin made pizzicato punctuations.
Lee's seemingly effortless virtuosity was evident in the final movement, Allegro ben marcato, a deceptively difficult one with fiendish rhythmic changes and continuous and rapid dance-like exchanges with the orchestra. This was Prokofiev at his witty and sardonic best.
After intermission, the audience had thinned a bit, although for the life of me, I can't understand why. Coming up were two symphonic poems by Ottorino Respighi, one a KSO premiere—and the other, one of the most unabashed sonic crowd-pleasers in the orchestral repertoire. Both Fountains of Rome, from 1917, and Pines of Rome, from 1924, drip with rich orchestral color and percussion effects. While the two works have different emotional appeal, both have moments of delicacy and boldness; both have textures where woodwinds, brass, and strings weave in and out, passing musical descriptions between sections. However, there the similarities seem to end; the fourth part of Fountains, "The Villa Medici Fountain," drifts slowly and quietly into the sunset, while the final part of Pines, "The Pines of the Appian Way," builds to a magnificent and triumphant finish.
One has only to notice the extensive extra orchestra personnel for these pieces to guess what is in store: two harps, contrabassoon, bass clarinet, English horn, celesta, piano, extra brass, a plethora of percussion instruments, and a nightingale effect. For Pines, Richman placed the extra brass choir at the rear of the balcony for the interesting manipulation of acoustic depth. This was orchestral entertainment, pure and simple, that Richman built gradually through tonal colors, adding density and volume, until it burst forth in that long anticipated, sonically overwhelming climax—a climax that drove away, at least temporarily, the sadness of being at season's end.