Whatever reasons prompted Maestro Lucas Richman to associate Franz Schubert with spring for the final Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Chamber Classics concert of the season on Sunday turned out to be spot-on. Perhaps he had feelings of springtime exuberance in mind, or maybe even reflection on the ending of the season, for all of those qualities were evident.
The concert opened with Schubert's String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, often called the Cello Quintet because of its addition of an extra cello to a string quartet instrumentation. I have mentioned previously the simple and unfortunate challenge that orchestra-based quartets face versus independent ensembles. Independent ensembles come together by choice and remain together; orchestral ensembles come together by force of their positions and change as the orchestra changes. As one might expect, an ensemble that plays together for years develops unconscious lines of communication between members and an ease of performance that radiates to the audience. While these qualities are certainly hoped for in orchestral ensembles, they all too often fail to materialize.
For these reasons, the KSO's quintet gave the audience a stunning surprise. Without a hint of tentativeness and radiating pleasure and confidence as an ensemble, they gave a magnificent performance of the Schubert. The ethereal and serene slow Adagio second movement was a beautiful example of inspired ensemble playing—its subtle little phrases in the violin, full of pianissimo nuance, and the gentle pizzicato cello were almost hypnotic in quality and perfectly juxtaposed. Considering the violent contrasts of the Scherzo and the Hungarian-like flavor of the finale, the ensemble handled the monumental dynamic and emotional range of the quintet brilliantly. Unfortunately, as orchestras change, so do their principal ensembles. It is possible that this was the last performance for this particular grouping.
Richman concluded the Schubert in the Spring concert with Schubert's Symphony No. 3 in D Major. Writing it at the age of 18, the young Schubert was clearly looking over his shoulder at his classical predecessor, Joseph Haydn, and his hero, Ludwig von Beethoven. By the time he finished it in 1815, Schubert would have heard Beethoven's first eight symphonies—yet he was making obvious efforts to move beyond both Beethoven and classical tendencies.
This short symphony is nothing if not exuberant. Its brevity is the perfect set-up for happy little themes, such as in the opening Allegro con brio. The theme, which sounds like fanfare to some but has always reminded me of a racetrack horn, is taken by the clarinet. In fact the clarinet of principal Gary Sperl figures prominently throughout the work, particularly with the simple, spring-like melodies of the second Allegretto movement.
The finale movement, a presto vivace, may have caught some of the KSO violins off guard, as they seemed to stumble in places in the first few bars. Yet this did nothing to quench the enthusiasm as a whole, and certainly not the enthusiasm of the solidly played horns and trumpets. Richman handled the driving rhythm, speed, dynamics, and conversational exchanges between woodwinds and strings very nicely, culminating in a finale that was symbolically spring-like—a solid end and a hopeful new beginning.