Themes abounded for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra last weekend as it opened its 2009-10 season, its 74th year of existence. On one hand, the concert was titled Pictures at an Exhibition, for that vibrant work by Modeste Mussorgsky (with Ravel's orchestration) on the second half of the program. On the other hand, the theme of American composers with differing points of view of the American South flowed through the first half of the concert. And, of those American works, two contained texts from famous American writers. By the end of the evening, though, a more substantive theme had emerged: the brilliant exhibition of a truly significant American symphony orchestra.
Of all the works on the program, I was most looking forward to Samuel Barber's piece for soprano and orchestra, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for the simple reason that I had never actually heard it performed in Knoxville. Barber said that he was drawn to the text from James Agee's prose poem because it reminded him of his own childhood. Similarly, soprano Eleanor Steber, who commissioned the work from Barber for performance with the Boston Symphony, said, "[T]hat was exactly my own childhood." However, despite the audience's yearning to be transported to that Knoxville of a different time, and despite Maestro Lucas Richman's preparation and the orchestra's nuanced performance, the beautifully evocative Agee text, sung by soprano Jami Rogers, fell into an unintelligible muddle. Notwithstanding Rogers' otherwise luscious tone, her diction prevented me from understanding a single word. In any other venue, in any other city, this would have been disappointing. In Knoxville, the unfortunate irony was inescapable.
Richman opened the concert with the music of American composer William Grant Still. Although certainly not obscure, Still had faded from the concert hall even before his death in 1978 at the age of 83. But as a pioneering African-American composer, Still helped break down barriers confronting black musicians in the early 20th century. The American Scene, Suite II: The South, composed in 1957, is one of five three-movement suites that aimed at the musical depiction of America through its regions and its musical influences. Based on this KSO performance, Still seems to have been a master of stylistic adaptation, with a lively ability to use impressionistic hints of those influences—jazz, blues, gospel—to draw one into a musical landscape.
Concluding the first half of the concert was film composer John Williams' Suite from The Reivers, a 1969 film based on the novel by William Faulkner. Williams constructed the suite from "cue" excerpts of his score and coupled them with extracted bits from Faulkner's original novel that, more or less, summarized the story. Unlike Williams' later scores, where memorable themes and melodies disguise an infrastructure of complex rhythms and meter, this suite relies mostly on orchestral effects to do the same to suggest time, place, and action. Williams even gives the depiction of the story's joyride vehicle, the "1905 yellow Winton flyer," to the galumphing tuba in a fiendishly difficult passage, played by KSO's Sande MacMorran. The narration was performed by retired broadcast personality Bill Williams in his familiarly emotive style.
It was the concluding work, though—Pictures at an Exhibition—that strangely seemed to tie the evening together. Whether it was the excitement of a new season, new players in new positions in the orchestra, or the fact that the concerts were being recorded for a CD issue, there was an intensity and focus that translated into a palpable energy that flowed from the stage to the audience.
Part of this was due, no doubt, to Richman's overall tempo in Pictures, which was certainly faster than I had expected. But it was a perfectly valid approach—crisp, energetic, and dynamic. Added to this was the sheer entertainment value of the colors and textures that the Ravel orchestration provided the KSO players. In "The Old Castle" movement, for example, a plaintive saxophone (Nathan Keedy) made a beautiful, soulful appearance, a welcome presence along with some new faces in the now solidly balanced KSO woodwind section. Delicate string work in the "Cum mortuis in lingua mortua" movement, some great brass solos, and a solid performance from the usually unheralded percussion section gave one a feeling of optimism for the upcoming season.