It may seem like a stretch to attach any sort of operatic qualities to Mozart's Symphony No. 38 in D Major ("Prague"), yet that is exactly what Lucas Richman appeared to be doing last Sunday as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra opened its Chamber Classics series with two works each by the two composers that dominate our view of the classical period: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn. But maybe it is not such a big stretch after all.
As his first symphony in several years, Mozart finished the No. 38 in December 1786 in time to deliver it to the city of Prague, where a production of his opera The Marriage of Figaro had just opened to wild and enthusiastic acclaim. This was in contradiction to the court machinations and covert subversion of his reputation in Vienna that had closed the premiere of Figaro after only nine performances the previous May. Although stinging from these public rebukes, as well as from difficulties with his father Leopold, Mozart was in full opera mode and was already looking ahead to more music for the theater. One of these would be the composition and premiere of Don Giovanni in Prague in the fall of 1787.
It isn't surprising, then, that Richman thought to bring a theatrical energy and vitality to the Prague Symphony—a vitality that bubbled with dramatic intensity. While the work does have brief superficial landmarks such as passage and movement-ending flourishes and reminders of other works, it is the overall operatic intrigue and vibrance that sets the work apart. And it is in these flashes of operatic character that Richman and the orchestra excelled. Thankfully, energy and passion more than trumped the significance of a few player imprecisions, which are just about impossible to hide in the incredibly subtle acoustic environment of the Bijou Theatre.
To open the concert, Richman chose some true theatrical Mozart, the Overture to the opera Cosi fan tutte, which, roughly translated, means "They all do it." The opera's farcical, somewhat scandalous nature is accurately described in this overture, which features an absolute feast for the woodwind players, who take turns repeating gossipy little statements amid jabbering, driving strings. Richman's tempo was nothing if not brisk and energetic.
The second-half opener was theatrical of a sort, as well—the overture to Joseph Haydn's oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia. Unfortunately, this intriguing opener was a reminder that there is a vast amount of deserving, yet rarely performed gems from the Classical and Baroque eras that we just never get to experience.
I was informed that the last performance by the KSO of Haydn's Cello Concerto in D Major was in early 2000, with the brilliant cellist János Starker, who was by then, sadly, near the end of his performing days. For this concert, Richman took the approach that he often does in the Chamber series and looked to the orchestra ranks itself for his soloist, cellist Ildar Khuziakhmetov.
After some opening intonation jitters, Khuziakhmetov settled in and delivered a performance that radiated solid warmth and emotion with a cello tone that was marvelously clean and penetrating, never harsh. However, one might have hoped for a tad less tension and darkness overall, both from the cello and from the orchestra, to avoid the heavier gravity that seemed to prevail. On the other hand, that seriousness came off as depth of purpose in the Adagio second movement—and was nicely poignant.
In a surprise to both orchestra and audience, Khuziakhmetov offered an encore of the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Cello Suite in D minor, which he dedicated to the memory of KSO principal horn Calvin Smith, who died in May. In this work, Khuziakhmetov found an emotional center that was a heartfelt tribute that can only come from the depths of a musician's musical soul.