One of the real joys of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra's Chamber Classics Series has always been the potential for musical adventure, and even some discovery, that can be found in the vast territory outside of the usual full orchestra repertoire and in lesser-known works. January's Chamber Classics concert last Sunday afternoon at the Bijou Theatre under the baton of KSO music director Lucas Richman, titled "Hail Britannia," was just such an adventure—one that turned out to be incredibly rewarding.
A more accurate title might have been "Just Off the Beaten Path in 20th-Century Britain," for each of the four works for string orchestra on the program—two by Benjamin Britten, and one each by Peter Warlock and Gustav Holst—had musical twists on specific historical material shaped by the sensibilities of a 20th-century British composer. What also marked each of the works was absolute top-notch ensemble playing and balance by the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra strings.
"Peter Warlock" was the composing pseudonym of Philip Heseltine, a quirky music essayist/biographer and composer whose party-driven lifestyle and early death at the age of 36 (probably at his own hand) belie a prolific amount of work. His 1926 Capriol Suite, which opened the concert, consists of very free arrangements of tunes found in Thoinot Arbeau's Orchésographie, a catalog of French Renaissance dances. While Warlock's base is decidedly Renaissance, his developments are decidedly 20th century, with moments of rhythmic humor and bouts of violent but satisfying dissonance.
A real jewel among the gems of the afternoon turned out to be the work that followed, Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. This song cycle takes nocturnal reflections from six different poets (among them, Tennyson, Keats, and Jonson); a wistful horn prologue and epilogue begin and end the piece. Immediately, one is struck by Britten's (and the performer's) successful balance—neither text nor music intrudes on the other, but are the ideal complement. Tenor Cody Boling was perfect for Britten's voice of the poet—clear and articulate, capable of intense sweetness, but with plenty of power and strength. The horn, which adds another poetic voice of dreamy night-time atmosphere and a few textural exclamations, was played beautifully by Jeffery Whaley, KSO's principal horn. For both soloists, their attention to the extremes of loudness and softness in the marvelous acoustic environment of the Bijou, while solidly handling the intricacies of Britten's interval leaps, was impressive.
Another work by Britten, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for String Orchestra, from 1937, followed the intermission. Frank Bridge was an English composer who tutored Britten from time to time and influenced him musically and philosophically. At age 24, Britten received the opportunity to honor his mentor by composing this work based on the second of Three Idylls for String Quartet. The young Britten chose a number of historical forms for his variations, including Italian opera, Baroque dances, waltzes, and a funeral march. Appropriately, Richman gave each movement a distinct flavor and richness.
Richman concluded with Gustav Holst's St. Paul's Suite for Strings, a work the composer wrote for the school where he taught, the St. Paul Girls' School. This four-movement work took the orchestra on a wild rhythmic ride, one that also touches on one of Holst's loves: the English folk song.
Featured in the third movement, "Intermezzo," were some lovely solo violin and viola passages played by Gabriel Lefkowitz and Kathryn Gawne. In the fourth movement, the folk song "The Dargason" is somewhat harmonically disguised, but there is no mistaking Holst's use of "Greensleeves." Holst then manages a satisfying melodic slight-of-hand by mixing the two for the finale.
The only cultural disappointment of the afternoon was in the crowd on the way out of the theatre, when I overheard a very elderly man proclaim seriously, "Dang, they didn't even play ‘Hail Britannia' at all." I guess you just can't please everyone.