For reasons that are quite positive but not altogether clear, music of the Baroque has been a big hit among Knoxville Symphony Orchestra audiences for the last couple of years, drawing listeners in numbers that seem to defy conventional programming wisdom. Despite the real popularity of a handful of works by J.S. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi, the amazingly vast catalog of Baroque works generally falls outside of the day-to-day choices of casual classical-music listeners. And it is often impossible for music directors to successfully juxtapose Baroque works against the instrumental textures of later 18th- and 19th-century pieces on the same program. Nevertheless, the charms of Baroque music are both seductive and satisfying—certainly enough so to attract capacity crowds of Knoxvillians to immerse themselves in that charm.
Two such concert sets of Baroque music by the KSO are on the horizon in March, both led by resident conductor James Fellenbaum with featured soloists from the orchestra. The first is this Sunday's Chamber Classics series offering of works by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Albinoni. Particularly notable here are two of Bach's Brandenburg concertos, the No. 4 in G Major and the No. 5 in D Major.
The six exceedingly popular Brandenburg Concertos were dedicated and delivered to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in 1721, although there is no record that the court musicians there ever performed them. Nevertheless, Bach obviously intended them as a showcase of instrumental variety from work to work—and virtuosity. The No. 4 features solo instruments consisting of one violin (Gabriel Lefkowitz) and two "fiauti d'echo" which, historically, probably referred to Baroque recorders but in this instance will be flutes (Ebonee Thomas and Jill Bartine). In contrast, the No. 5 features solo flute and violin (Thomas and Lefkowitz) and harpsichord, which will be performed by guest Michael Unger, assistant professor of organ and harpsichord at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. Unger will be hard to miss in that No. 5; it contains a harpsichord cadenza so lengthy and virtuosic that Bach probably intended to play it himself.
The 12 opus 6 Concerti Grossi of George Frideric Handel were written in 1739 as a way of constructing programs that included larger works, such as oratorios, and shorter works, such as the concerti grossi, in between sections. The No. 5 in D Major on this concert is drawn from the composer's own Ode for St. Cecelia's Day.
There is quite the story behind Tomaso Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor for Organ and Strings, included on the second half of the program, part of which is that it is probably the work of a 20th-century musicologist, Remo Giazotto. With many of Albinoni's collected manuscripts lost in World War II, Giazotto originally claimed to have reconstructed the movement from scraps provided to him by the Saxon State Library in Dresden, attributing it to Albinoni. The controversy, however, has not prevented others from latching on to this now familiar work. It has been used in dozens of films and commercials—Gallipoli and Flashdance among them—and was even adapted by the Doors.
Music of the Baroque, courtesy of the KSO, will continue later in March with all six of the Brandenburg Concertos performed on two successive evenings on the March 20-21 KSO Masterworks concerts in the Tennessee Theatre.
February cannot pass without mention of Music of the Spirit, last weekend's KSO Masterworks concert pair. Lucas Richman chose three works from three 20th-century composers: the Armenian-Americans Richard Yardumian and Alan Hovhaness and the Swiss-American Ernest Bloch.
Richman opened with Yardumian's Veni, Sancte Spiritus, from 1959, continuing with Hovhaness' Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No. 2) from 1955—both works extremely tonal. The latter is a work of pastoral lushness, reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, and was richly played by the KSO strings, with contrasting brass and woodwind textures. The middle movement—a fugue-like energetic exercise—was engaging even in its simple-mindedness.
The large work of the evening was Bloch's Avodath Ha Kodesh ("Sacred Service"), from 1933, scored for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. Most certainly, it was not necessary to feel the religious connection of the work's Hebrew text to be overwhelmed by this powerful work.
Power, too, came from Nmon Ford, a baritone with a rich and penetrating voice that easily projected with beauty from the front apron of the Tennessee Theatre stage. At the rear were the combined forces of the University of Tennessee Choral Ensembles, whose choral diction, power, and balance was most impressive on this occasion.