Since it can hardly be called a birthday celebration without cake, long tables filled with guest-sized servings jammed the lobby of the Tennessee Theatre last weekend, enticing both eager and reluctant audience members as they exited the 75th-anniversary concerts of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. While cake was the last of several treats enjoyed by concertgoers, the real gifts of the evening started with music and the realization that the KSO is one Knoxville organization that, after 75 years, is still achieving its goals of making music for the city, and inspiring and educating new generations of musicians to do the same.
Maestro Lucas Richman chose a past and future motif for the evening, starting historically with three unrelated works that were, nonetheless, connected in some way to the orchestra's past: Paul Dukas' "Fanfare" from the ballet La Peri, David Van Vactor's Recitative and Saltarello, and David Sartor's Metamorphic Fanfare.
Although Van Vactor arrived in Knoxville in 1947 to simultaneously organize what would become the University of Tennessee's School of Music and become KSO music director and conductor (a position he held until stepping down in 1972), he also continued his prolific career as a composer. In his youth, Van Vactor had studied composition under the French composer Dukas. Subsequently, Van Vactor taught composition to a generation of composers who passed through the newly founded UT music department. One of those composers was Sartor, whose work on this program was commissioned by the KSO for its "Millennium Fanfare" series in 2000-01.
Richman concluded the first half of the evening with Mozart's Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, a reprise performance from the chamber series earlier in the month at the Bijou. As has been mentioned previously, the movements from Mozart symphony's were performed on the very first KSO concert on Nov. 24, 1935, with the orchestra conducted by its founder, Bertha Walburn Clark. Having been enjoyed in the intimate acoustics of the Bijou, the Mozart symphony seemed to suffer a bit in scale on this occasion from having to follow the rhythmic variety and the brash and bold 20th-century textures of Dukas, Van Vactor, and Sartor.
Richman tied the second half of the program to the orchestra's future with its most current commission, Off Trail in the Smokies, by Knoxville composer James Carlson, and two works that highlighted the orchestra's current and future players: Leos Janácek's Sinfonietta and Shostakovich's Festive Overture.
Carlson's Off Trail in the Smokies was commissioned by the KSO for performance at the 2009 75th-anniversary celebration of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was inspired by poems by the avid off-trail hiker Jenny Bennett. The text from the poems, included as narration in the work, was performed by actress—and Knoxville native—Dale Dickey. Carlson's expressionistic score is wonderfully evocative in portraying the euphoric emotions of a hiker in love with the drama and majesty of the mountain backcountry. Similarly, Dickey's narrative was breathlessly euphoric as well. The conceptual problem with the work, though, is that the music and narration seem to fight each other for attention. And, unfortunately, neither one comes out ahead.
Janácek's Sinfonietta is a feast of instrumental textures and, hence, a perfect showcase for the current players of the KSO. This work, celebratory in the extreme, calls for, in addition to the usual complement of orchestral players, 12 trumpets, two bass trumpets, two tenor tubas, English horn, four flutes, piccolo, bass clarinet, and a plethora of percussion players. The familiar brass fanfare, which opens and concludes the work, filled the hall with a blanket of sound, but with each instrument type still miraculously discernible. In between, most of the woodwinds had exposed solo moments that were a part of Janácek's richly entertaining descriptions.
For the concluding work, Richman programmed Shostakovich's 1954 work, the short Festive Overture, in what was a dramatic indicator of the orchestra's future. The full KSO was joined onstage by the 50-plus members of the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra, and augmented further by additional brass players in the house. By sonic force and volume alone, the performance was impressive. More impressive, though, was the splendid vision of the combined orchestra and the symbolism of its educational program. And that was better than cake.