The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra could have titled its concerts last weekend "The Night of a Thousand Instruments" instead of merely "Boléro!" The stage of the Tennessee Theatre found itself populated with an unusual quantity and assortment of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments—and their players—to support the requirements of the evening's four works. On the other hand, the title "Boléro!" was probably quite apt, for it illustrated not just the presence of that popular work, but also a common thread that meandered through all of the selections on the concert: a willingness by each of the composers to move beyond traditional norms of musical development, and an embrace of a musical fabric woven from complex textures and hypnotic rhythms.
I was really quite charmed by the premise and the performance of the opening work on the program—a work by contemporary American composer Christopher Theofanidis, Rainbow Body. While Theofanidis' title refers to a concept in Tibetan Buddhism, the melodic theme is based on a chant of the remarkable medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen—"Ave Maria, O auctrix vite." A conceptual connection between the two may be a bit esoteric, though, but that did not diminish the impact of the lyrical chant melody, nor the notable effect of orchestral instruments simulating the acoustical echo of an old cathedral. The lyricism, although punctuated by moments of extreme darkness of tone, places the work in the category of pieces that are easily accessible to those wary of contemporary music, yet still intriguing for those who prefer a little adventure.
The featured guest soloist for the evening was the remarkable 23-year old violinist Elena Urioste, who joined Maestro Lucas Richman and the KSO for a performance of Jean Sibelius' Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, op. 47. Without qualification, I can say that Urioste is one the most accomplished young violinists performing in the United States today. She seems to possess an innate stage maturity; her ability to offer a performance of subtle details and intricate nuances which still possessed amazing passion and energy contradicts her youth. Her performance radiated a life that transcended mere technical mastery.
For the second half of the concert, the stage bulged once again with a grand assortment of KSO players and instruments for the evening's two sonic showcase works: the tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche ("Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks") by Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel's Boléro. Although Strauss avoided offering a detailed program of his work, the audience needed little more than their own imaginations in order to fall helplessly into the story. In fact, textures and images flowed freely from this lighthearted piece, chock full of orchestral tone color and brimming with opportunities for orchestra soloists to entertain with virtuosic moments. Among these are the familiar "Till Eulenspiegel" theme, carried by the solid horns, and humorous interjections from the clarinets, which include the bass clarinet and virtuosic shrieks from the rare appearance of a D clarinet.
Last, but certainly not least, came Maurice Ravel's Boléro. By the 1920s, Ravel had left the 19th century behind, not for the severe atonality and dissonance of some of his 20th-century contemporaries, but for his own brand of dramatic rebellion. While Boléro was written for the specific needs of a ballet piece, it is in the concert hall that it has garnered respect and an enthusiastic following.
Roughly 17 minutes long, Boléro begins quietly with a snare drum setting a rhythmic pattern that continues throughout. The familiar theme is first stated by the flute. But as the pattern repeats, different instruments, some in unusual combinations, take up the theme in an overwhelming variety of tone colors and textures. These were the long-awaited solos, too many to mention and some deceptively difficult, that were important moments for the KSO players and delightful ones for the audience.
With each iteration, the tension builds; the piece unfolds in one long, slow crescendo toward a cataclysmic volume until a sudden key shift that feels nothing less than miraculous. Then, at the pinnacle of tension, the massive wall of sound crashes in on itself in a satisfying release. The audience had no choice but to loudly reward Richman and the KSO both for the wonderful journey—and their arrival at a new tier of orchestral performance.