One might think, given the popularity and unfortunate ubiquity of the Brahms Violin Concerto in the concerto repertoire, that we've already experienced every bit of enjoyment that is to be had from the piece, and that we've heard every nuance and felt every emotion. However, the true virtuoso throws open a window for the listener to let in light and fresh air, revealing ideas previously unimagined and leaving one gasping with satisfaction. Such was the case with guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine and her appearance with Maestro Lucas Richman and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra last weekend.
This often-played and often-recorded concerto is practically de rigueur for notable violinists, but even they may struggle under the burden of finding a distinctive, yet acceptable, approach. Yet, more often than not, these attempts forget Brahms' intended warmth and come off not as thoughtful but as either overwrought or austere. Barton Pine brushed aside any possible pretensions, revealing a perfectly direct approach to the concerto—luscious in tone and free in spirit—that seemed fresh and true.
There is certainly nothing pretentious about the gorgeous second (Adagio) movement. The simple, poignant melody is first introduced by the solo oboe (beautifully played by KSO principal oboe Phylis Secrist), accompanied by only the other woodwinds. Then, the violin takes up the melody in modified form. It was here that Barton Pine soared with a brilliance and accuracy of tone that was nothing less than thrilling.
The gypsy-like instrumental colors of the final movement were beautifully rendered by both Barton Pine and the orchestra. And right up to the concluding chords, the violin has moment after moment of elaborate winding threads—perfectly executed— and intriguing, staccato rhythms that practically draw the audience to their feet.
At the Thursday evening performance, Barton Pine returned for an encore with a piece of her own composition, Introduction, Theme, and Variations on "God Defend New Zealand". She herself has termed the work "jaw-dropping virtuosity in the style of Paganini." I hasten to add "amazing" to that description.
Richman opened the concert with another Brahms work, the Tragic Overture, op. 81. Oddly, though, there seemed to be a perceptible bit of atmospheric tension in the orchestra and conductor at the beginning of the evening, especially for the Thursday performance, that was not necessarily related to the normally dark, stormy nature of the score. Add to that intangible discomfort a smattering of tentative entrances and some jangled string passages, and the work seemed just a bit off-center from what it could have been. Nothing tragic, though.
After intermission, a brief ceremony was held to honor Mark Zelmanovich, who is stepping down from the KSO after 24 years as concertmaster. Zelmanovich will receive the title of concertmaster emeritus following this season's performances.
Following the ceremony, Richman concluded the evening with the Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major. Owing its ancestry to the Beethoven Second rather than to the Third Symphony, there are genuine surprises in the work that belie its reputation as the most neglected of the Beethoven symphonies. The Fourth really deserves more respect—and certainly if more performances were like the one the KSO delivered.
The symphony's uncharacteristic and intriguing opening, slow and mysterious, is one that tiptoes as if in a darkened hallway—that is, until Richman called for that spectacularly conceived crescendo and the ensuing animated tempos. It is this lively and happy optimism that then pervaded the work throughout, made solid by the orchestra's precise attention to the volume dynamics.
In all the works on the concert, but particularly in the Beethoven symphony, one could not help but notice the now incredibly solid and balanced woodwinds. I must single out the bassoons, in particular, for their velvety tone and great execution of some fiendishly difficult passages.
Undoubtedly, the upcoming year will prove to be another threshold year for the KSO. A new concertmaster will come on board for what will be the orchestra's 75th season—and the orchestra will probably change in subtle, and some not-so-subtle, ways. Watching that change unfold as the orchestra steps into the future should be very interesting, to say the least.