KSO Finds Room for Innovation in Gershwin's Best-Known Works

In almost every concert of the music of George Gershwin, there comes the inevitable moment of lament for the early death of that most American of composers, and what might have been—if only. In his introduction to last weekend's Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concerts titled simply "Gershwin," Maestro Lucas Richman did just that, and he couldn't have been more correct. Even in his short lifetime, Gershwin had a profound effect, not just on other American composers and on musical theater, but also on European composers such as Maurice Ravel. But left with only wistful speculation, we have to settle and hope for performances that bring Gershwin to life once again. And we certainly received that from Richman and the KSO.

Rhapsody in Blue sits at the pinnacle of Gershwin's concert works, despite the fact that at the time of its composition, in 1924, the composer was not yet fully adept at writing for an orchestra. Although Gershwin himself premiered the work as the piano soloist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, it was Ferde Grofé who orchestrated it. While the blatant orchestral colors of Rhapsody in Blue define much of its character, it is the piano line that gives it its life. Owing to its jazz-like influences, the work is practically an open invitation for creative exploration. In a performance that was as fresh as it was inventive, pianist Norman Krieger gave this Rhapsody all sorts of rubato and cadence alterations, not to mention uncommonly accented notes in phrases, in a sculpted performance that unabashedly oozed virtuosity without a percussive heavy hand. And if that was a smirk on Krieger's face, it was the smirk of a pianist who knew exactly what he had in store for his audience.

Taking liberties didn't end with the piano. Principal clarinetist Gary Sperl gave the opening signature glissando a bit of a pleasant twist. Richman, too, pulled and pushed the orchestra, keeping a great balance between the surging of dynamic breath, and the need for razor-sharp instrumental entrances and exits.

The second half of the all-Gershwin program was taken up with the concert version of his folk opera Porgy and Bess, assembled by Robert Russell Bennett. In this shortened version from 1956, a soprano (Denisha Ballew) takes the musical numbers of the characters Clara, Serena, and Bess, while a bass-baritone (Michael Rodgers) sings the roles of Crown, Sportin' Life, and Porgy. Both Ballew and Rodgers are well known to Knoxville audiences—she for her roles in UT Opera Theatre productions, and he for his appearances for Knoxville Opera and local choirs. These are singers with incredible vocal instruments, both capable of impressive power and delicate lyricism. Rodgers was a master of diction, as exemplified by "It Ain't Necessarily So." Ballew's "My Man's Gone Now" was hauntingly beautiful. The Carson-Newman A Capella Choir joined Richman and the KSO for the choral numbers.

Richman set the tone for the evening with Gershwin's Cuban Overture, a work rich with delicious rumba rhythms and Cuban-inspired percussion sounds of bongos and maracas.

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One of the unfortunate, gaping holes in the Knoxville-area classical music scene is the dearth of appearances by notable ensembles with national reputations. Thankfully, the Oak Ridge Civic Music Association has the means and the willingness to help correct that deficiency, albeit for an Oak Ridge audience. Last weekend, their Chamber Series brought the marvelous Cypress String Quartet, a San Francisco-based ensemble, to Oak Ridge for a concert of works by Glazunov and Beethoven, along with a newly commissioned work, Bel Canto, by Elena Ruehr. This 15-year-old ensemble, consisting of violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, is clearly dedicated to exquisite music-making and to opening up the string quartet repertoire to new works.

Bel Canto was inspired by the popular novel of the same name by Ann Pachett and sought, in a vaguely programmatic way, to illustrate specific moments of that work. Although lovingly performed, I was oddly unmoved. The work felt like a precursor to a film score in which the composer was thinking "orchestra," but was unable to adapt images to the sonorities of a string quartet.

A much happier story was the Beethoven Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130. With the inclusion of the brilliant and turbulent Große Fugue, the work's original final movement, this performance was monumental in every sense of the word. The quartet avoided brutality in that final movement while keeping the churning fugal motifs in motion amid dynamic shifts that push and recede. The long periods of fortissimo playing demanded careful attention to tonal balance in the midst of volume, something that this brilliant quartet had obviously mastered long ago.