KSO Takes an Adventurous Tour Through Spain

While gray skies and winter's final chill were stubbornly resisting the onset of spring last weekend, inside the Tennessee Theatre was a different story altogether. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Kelly Corcoran were visiting sunnier climes, basking in the warmth and vitality of Spanish composers, Spanish dances, and Spanish flavor—and taking listeners on one of the more refreshing journeys of the season, complete with some truly sublime music-making.

Corcoran, associate conductor of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, turned out to be one of the many stars of the evening herself. Her conducting style exuded freshness and energy, all the while drawing both controlled passion and impressive ensemble playing out of the clearly intrigued KSO musicians. And importantly, she managed variations of depth and dynamics in the five works on the program, keeping each work individual and interesting despite their common bond of Iberian flavor.

The featured soloist of the evening was Croatian-born guitarist Ana Vidovic, who joined Corcoran and the KSO for Joaquin Rodrigo's 1939 work for guitar and orchestra, Concierto de Aranjuez. The Tennessee Theatre stage warmed considerably when Vidovic entered in a sun-yellow gown probably intended to augment the impression of a sun-drenched locale. In fact, though, her marvelous performance needed no help in achieving a stunning blend of virtuosic string effects, delicious guitar nuances, and solid, rich tone. The only help that was apparently necessary was amplification for the guitar, making possible a balance with the orchestra, albeit a bit unnaturally. Even then, I feared I might have missed some of Vidovic's incredibly subtle muted string work.

The haunting Adagio second movement, instantly recognizable from its impressionistic use (if not overuse) in films and commercials, was as beautifully rendered as one could have hoped. Notable here was Corcoran's ear for the delicate orchestral background balance and the rapturously bittersweet English horn passages, sensitively played by Elizabeth Telling, who got quite a bit of work over the course of the evening.

Corcoran opened the concert with the Suite No. 2 from Manuel De Falla's Three Cornered Hat, his music for the 1919 ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes. Taken in the entirety of the three movements, the work is essentially a long build from a sweet pastoral theme in 3/4 time through rough outbursts and punctuated rhythms to a finale of brassy attacks and shifting emotions, ending in a musical nose tweak. Along the way, every section of the orchestra got their licks in, from violins and woodwinds to the low brass and basses, with a lot of comic percussion texture for good measure.

The third Spanish composer of the evening—and a delight—was Joaquin Turina, represented by his Danzas fantásticas from 1920, a work based on the novel La orgía by José Más. From melodic hints throughout the work, it certainly comes as no surprise to learn that Turina was a friend and colleague of de Falla, although there is nothing particularly derivative at all. Although Turina remained more dedicated to Andalusian flavor than his friend, he was not totally immune to orchestration influences of a more northerly 20th-century Europe.

Also included on the program were the works of two non-Spanish composers—the French Emmanuel Chabrier and the Russian Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov—who were each induced by the whims of the late 19th century to create works of Spanish flavor. Chabrier's tone poem España was a travelogue of impressions based on his 1882 travels in Spain. A number of Spanish dances are embraced in the score—the malagueña and the jota—as well as an original theme given to the trombones which became the basis for the 1950s pop song "Hot Diggity."

Last, but certainly not least, came Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol, a work that exemplifies the late 19th-century European embrace of folk music, even that of distant countries. The work owes its enduring popularity to its boundless energy and the stunning array of orchestral textures and colors, which are a feast of opportunity for orchestral players. The second movement of variations on a theme featured exposed moments for horn (Jeffery Whaley) and English horn (Telling); the "Alborada" returns in the third movement with distinctive passages for flute (Ebonee Thomas), clarinet (Gary Sperl), and harp (Cindy Hicks), not to mention a breathtaking violin solo by Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz and beautiful playing by cellist Andy Bryenton.

A word of pity here for those concertgoers who may have opted out of this concert—you missed one of the true jewels of the KSO season.