Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 is probably one of those works, like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, that is so iconic in both atmosphere and melody that some think of it as too frequently performed—or perhaps too popular for its own good, thanks to the interpolations of '70s pop artist Eric Carmen into "All by Myself." Admittedly, it does represent both the essence of the piano in the turn-of-the-century Romantic movement and of romance in music itself. But, as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra revealed last weekend, there is quite a bit of intensely satisfying depth to the work.
Orion Weiss, guest pianist for the KSO's season opener last weekend, brought an immense likability to the concerto. His performance was without pretension or excessive sentimental clutter, yet had plenty of use for the sensual and the dreamy. While the concerto is unabashedly virtuosic for the pianist, Weiss was also a superb collaborator, evidenced by his extreme sensitivity to the orchestra's role in the second Adagio sostenuto movement in which he wove the piano line in and out of orchestra's presence like a silken thread.
It's worth mentioning KSO music director/conductor Lucas Richman and the orchestra in terms of collaboration as well. In that second movement, Richman seemed particularly tuned to the balance of sound crossing the footlights; the opening theme introduced by the flute, then taken up by the clarinet, floated perfectly against the piano. The orchestration, too, pulsed against the solo piano, rising and falling delicately, as if rays of hope and optimism were struggling with the gloom of night.
Richman is beginning his 10th season at KSO, and his stated programming scheme for the season is to focus on works that have been meaningful points for him throughout his career. He began the concert with Johannes Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, which he indicated was his conducting debut piece at the Tanglewood Festival at the age of 16. Aside from the idea of a beginning, the work seemed appropriate for the season in other ways—notably, the solid Brahms presenting four obviously familiar student melodies (one being "Gaudeamus igitur") and wrapping them in a respectable cloak of academia, all the while bubbling with a hint of satire.
Following the Brahms, the remaining two works on the first half of the program jumped into the 20th century and took the concert in a somewhat different direction altogether, certainly a direction a bit more personal for Richman. In both his program notes and his concert spiel, Richman revealed the inspiration of Aaron Copland on both his overall career in music and specifically on his work as a composer. To that end, Richman programmed his own work, Summer Excursions, a nine-minute impressionistic rhythmic jaunt through textural hints of highways, fields, summer scenery, and summer sounds. When followed by Aaron Copland's El Salón México, the influence was understandable and unmistakable.
Copland constructed his work to capture the life of a particular Mexico City dance hall that he had been drawn to and visited in the 1920s, and where he had been enthralled by both the humanity and the distinctive music. Varying rhythms that show up as complex mixed meters, accentuated beats, and colorful instrumental textures featuring the expected trumpets and clarinets are signatures of the work, as is the use of the familiar tune "The Green Stick" ("El Palo Verdi").
The complex start-and-stop rhythm structures of both Summer Excursions and El Salón México were apparently handled nicely by the orchestra, although Richman seemed overly demonstrative and precise in physically defining them with the baton, as if he secretly wished for a tad more rehearsal. In truth, while the precision was there, one could have hoped for a bit more humanness and light-hearted fun in the Copland.
Nevertheless, this was an auspicious start to what will undoubtedly be a threshold season for the orchestra. The orchestra's 2012-13 schedule in the coming months is chock full of performance opportunities—demanding ones for the orchestra, and what should be truly enlightening and satisfying ones for the audience.