Programs of American music are certainly common among orchestras and ensembles around the country these days. And why not? It‘s music to which we are inextricably tied, geographically and socially. American composers have long struggled with obstacles, including suffering under the heavy weight of the European masters, the unspoken discrimination of orchestras and conductors, and the unwillingness—thankfully no longer the case—of publishers and recording companies to handle American works.
How, then, should an orchestra approach a program of American music? Should it carefully craft a theme and variations and attempt to broadly, or narrowly, illustrate influences and trends? Or should it shun curatorial nonsense, avoiding both the usual and the arcane, and just keep it simple, as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra did with its "Chamber Music of America" concert last Sunday? Often, simple is best.
The unadvertised sub-theme of the concert was that four of the six works on the program were early works, if not the first, by their respective composers. Given this, the center of gravity belonged to Samuel Barber's relatively early work, his String Quartet. Critics, some kind and some not so kind, have long remarked on the phenomenon of the "interesting" first and third movements coexisting with the brilliant and lyrically stunning slow second movement that seemed to come from nowhere. Barber himself recognized the potential of the Molto adagio movement and subsequently adapted it for orchestra as the exceedingly popular Adagio for Strings. The KSO Principal Quartet—Edward Pulgar and Sean Claire, violins; Kathryn Gawne, viola; and Andy Bryenton, cell—provided a well thought-out performance.
The concert opened with Leonard Bernstein's Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, a work he wrote while a third-year student at Harvard. Clearly this was not the mature Bernstein, but the one exploring possibilities, different emotions, and tone colors. Yet there were flashes of inspiration that gave hints to the theater works that were to come. The violinist was Pulgar, the cellist was Bryenton; and the pianist was Carol Zinavage.
KSO's maestro, Lucas Richman, offered an early work of his own—a woodwind quintet, Our Waking Life and a Dream. Written at the age of 23, Richman's quintet displayed a particular quality of his later works—the ability to entice the listener. His music flowed, though, from inspirations not uncommon to students and young professionals, an unconscious mix of the deeply philosophical ideas of existence and the entirely practical implications of sleep.
Composer Timothy Cooper, winner of the KSO's 2009 Young Composer Competition, is the same age that Richman was when he wrote Our Waking Life. His work, Canaan Heights, an octet for piano, strings, and woodwinds, was given its world premiere on the concert. Cooper's piece reflected a very tonal, lyrical style that was naturally evocative of his native mountains of West Virginia. Given his gentle, yet substantial, grasp of musical depiction, it will be interesting to follow his career and observe how external influences will affect his Appalachian musical roots.
Whether folksy or sophisticated, nothing in a musical vein seems more intrinsically American than the song. Certainly American songs that depict the pain and joys of everyday life—sadness, irony, bliss—reveal in their poetry as much about the nature of life as any other musical form. To conclude each half of the concert, soprano Jennifer Barnett performed two sets of songs by American composers: Blue Mountain Ballads by Paul Bowles, taken from poems by Tennessee Williams; and Four Cabaret Songs by William Bolcom.
Song performance is really all about storytelling—and Barnett is quite the storyteller. Her clear tone and excellent diction, which no doubt makes her an excellent performer in Baroque oratorios, also lends itself to the subtle art and craft of song performance. All the selections were excellent, but I tended to gravitate toward the sadly poignant (Bowles' Lonesome Man) and the ironically humorous (Bolcom's Amor and Toothbrush Time). Barnett was accompanied by Richman on the piano.
KSO's "Chamber Music of America" was not, nor did it claim to be, a panoramic view of American music. It seemed to be more like peeping through a keyhole, which often can be quite a bit more entertaining.