As any regular concertgoer can tell you, the Tennessee Theatre is a miracle of acoustics, with a rich, warm, natural resonance and an almost uncanny ability to project sonic details to every seat in the house. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, which performs in the theater enclosed in an efficient orchestra shell, has proven time and again the ability to communicate both subtlety and thunderous volume in the hall. However, the appearance of Midori as a guest violinist with the KSO in Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor last weekend presented the audience and orchestra with a bit of a dilemma that even the rich acoustics could not help.
As a teenager in the 1980s, Midori burst into the public eye with her precocious virtuosity, playing with a fiery, fearless passion that was rich with intricate musical detail that amazed and delighted audiences. Now 39 years old, her mature style has retained the remarkable precision but now seems to have an inward focus, one that is more personal and restrained, with boldness making way for smaller and smaller details and nuances—and, unfortunately, a much smaller sound. In the case of this Mendelssohn concerto, a brilliant work that features both poignant sadness and giddy optimism, Midori's interpretation emphasized the sadness—a withdrawn and seemingly personal sadness—and had little use for optimism. Despite the fact that the compression of emotional extremes was obviously the violinist's deliberate choice, this pushed the performance in a direction that forced one to strain in order to hear Mendelssohn's intent.
As a result, Maestro Lucas Richman, in as careful a concerto performance as I have heard from KSO, was obliged to hold the orchestra back to give Midori's subtle interpretation a chance. Unfortunately, this also diminished some of the wonderful Mendelssohn instrumental textures. In a passage of fairy-like flute and clarinet giddiness in the third allegro molto vivace movement, Midori rushed her solo line along, noticeably out of sync with the orchestra, only to pull back. As a result of the interpretation's subdued personality, the finale passages of the first and third movements, which are usually optimistic flourishes, seemed quite gratuitous.
Although Richard Strauss' tone poem Ein Heldenleben is also a personal pronouncement of self, the performance by Richman and the orchestra on the second half of the program was anything but the personal blanket of sadness with which Midori had wrapped the Mendelssohn concerto. The work filled the hall with Strauss' textural arrogance in a narrative that is rich and bold with brass and sparkling with woodwinds and strings. Richman was extremely judicious in avoiding the trap of overindulgence in the work—he carefully meted out exuberance and softness without overexaggerating the contrasts.
However, it is the contrasts that give this work its appeal. Distant offstage trumpets announced the fourth movement, "The Hero's Battlefield," in which drums and trumpets vividly portrayed a battle scene. In the fifth movement, Richman gave Strauss' quotes from his own works (Don Juan, Til Eulenspiegel, and Don Quixote, among others) just a bit of emphasis without being blatant. The concluding movement brings peace and contentment to the hero's final days with flourishes of memory, followed by a quiet end. Richman skillfully held the applause off until every echo had died away in reverie.
In this work, too, the solo violin plays a major role, giving voice to the composer's characters. The extended violin solo work fell to guest concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz, the first of three final candidates for the KSO concertmaster position. In the third movement, "The Hero's Companion," the violin is called to the gargantuan task of portraying lyrical sentimentality, ferocity, frivolity, sharpness, and gaiety in a featured solo. While other violinists may have feared suffering by comparison with a nationally known virtuoso on the same bill, Lefkowitz's performance proved he was—at the very least—an equally brilliant musical communicator and interpreter, as well as a wonderfully proficient orchestral player. Lefkowitz has indeed set the bar quite high for the remaining two candidates, who will be heard in future KSO performances.
Richman opened the concert with another work on the theme of heroes, his own A Time for Heroes, commissioned in 2008 for the Johnstown (Pa.) Symphony. In Richman's own words, the work "is dedicated to the heroic and incredible human strength and spirit of the people raised in Appalachian culture." I couldn't help feeling, though, that Richman was also thinking of one of his own heroes, the composer John Williams.