It was an evening of exploration—and perhaps even discovery—as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra trod familiar trails and also ventured into some new territory with its concerts last weekend. The unstated subject was America, and how different composers filter national and regional experiences through the lens of their own musical sensibilities.
The centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of Theodore Wiprud's Violin Concerto (Katrina), a work written at the request of Ittai Shapira, who was the violin soloist. The composer himself introduced the three-movement work and spoke briefly on the musical motifs and the overall theme: the impact that Hurricane Katrina had on music and musicians of the Delta.
As conductor Lucas Richman began, it was immediately obvious that Wiprud's musical lens is one that fractures the familiar into unfamiliar bits and pieces and reassembles them in quite different musical shapes and tonalities. The result was analogous to a pointillist painting in which scenes are broken up into fundamental structural elements and completeness can only be glimpsed at a distance. What we saw at a distance was an orchestral construction that was extremely intriguing and satisfying in its tonal complexity. The line between percussion and non-percussion instruments often blurred, creating persistent residual impressions of literal atmospheric quality. Woodwind and brass tone punctuated moments of action and substance, while the strings made sudden announcements of drama. It was in this harmonic depiction of chaos alternating with calm that the work succeeded brilliantly.
Unfortunately, specific programmatic references create expectations, even abstract ones; those made by Wiprud about his derivations—Acadian folk tunes, jazz styles, blues references—and given to the solo violin emerged from the composer's lens in what seemed to be halting solo statements that, while intricately constructed and performed, were all too successful in blurring the understanding for listeners. The third movement, "Fly Away," a fantasy on the hymn "I'll Fly Away," was an example of Wiprud's lens of abstraction that must simply be enjoyed on its own terms.
Opening and closing the concert were two works that were also snapshots of America viewed through a composer's lens: Aaron Copland's Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo and Antonin Dvorák's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World").
Copland's Rodeo is, of course, a theatrical view of the cowboy West derived from Western folk tunes and tailored to dance; that is both its strength and weakness as music. The concert version allows the themes to exist on their own, even lending themselves to use (or overuse) in commercials.
Richman dove into the opener, mixing tempos with plenty of rhythmic vigor against lyrical poignancy. The second episode, "Corral Nocturne," is always a pleasant surprise, despite its sweet but melancholy sadness, due to the soft instrumental color from woodwinds and uncommonly gentle brass. I suppose I'm obligated to mention the fourth episode, "Hoedown," which, despite its commercial familiarity, was rendered here by the orchestra with crisp, clean energy and dynamic bounce.
Richman concluded the evening with Dvorák's New World Symphony. It is the highest compliment I can give to say I have never heard the work sound so right, or so American, at least in the opening two movements. In the opening Adagio movement, it seemed as if Richman had carefully recognized and focused on those moments in which the composer had purposely suggested American melodies, and had kept the orchestral balance pushed toward the delicate side of woodwinds and away from European string solidity.
This feeling was continued in the famous Largo movement and its wistful English horn solo, nicely played by Ayca Yayman.
However, the Europe of Beethoven creeps back into the work in the third and fourth movements, sometimes dark and foreboding, with beautifully played heavy horns, sometimes bright with the recalled woodwind themes, sometimes even familiar with a derived version of the "Three Blind Mice" melody. For the finale, Dvorák does Beethoven one better. Instead of the simple "bang" of a final chord, Dvorák let Richman and the orchestra trail off into silence, creating a final impression of the seemingly infinite expanse of America.