Lucas Richman leads KSO through a clever program of narrative music

It's a curious irony that while some classical music listeners are uncomfortable with contemporary music and recoil at the mere suggestion of odd melodic intervals, untraditional harmonies, and polytonality, they will happily enjoy a motion picture whose score is filled with those same qualities. The difference, of course, lies in how we perceive music in the abstract versus how we perceive music that accompanies other storytelling media.

It appears, then, that Maestro Lucas Richman was rather clever like a fox in programming and delivering last week's Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Masterworks concerts. His three selections probably offered musical challenges for some listeners. But because they represented three storytelling genres—a drama, a fairy tale, and a ballet—Richman found he could relate the music directly to their sources and perhaps provide a palatable introduction to more contemporary musical abstraction. The three works—Richman's own An Overture to Blanche, Dvorak's The Golden Spinning Wheel, and Stravinsky's 1911 ballet score Petrushka—each spoke a different musical language. Yet, faced with the task of relating that musical language to a storyline, the audience seemed to rise cheerfully to the occasion.

This point was particularly driven home in the featured work on the program: Igor Stravinsky's 1947 concert version of his 1911 ballet score, Petrushka. To aid the audience in linking the score to the story of a puppet brought to life, supertitles with abbreviated descriptions of the scene and action of the ballet were projected over the proscenium. Whether this was a help or a distraction, though, depended largely on the individual audience member.

The Stravinsky ballet score is at once humorous and sardonic, weaving the liveliness of street-carnival melodies with angry, clashing harmonies and complex rhythms and meter. For the most part, the orchestra and conductor emerged unscathed from Stravinsky's demands of rhythm and texture with some shining performances from the clarinet, trumpet, flute, and piano, not to mention humor from a chuckle-producing bassoon "blaaat."

Richman opened the concert with one of his own works, An Overture to Blanche, an 11-minute concert expansion on part of his incidental music for the recent Clarence Brown Theatre production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. As a solo tenor sax passage sets the stage, I found myself pleasantly immersed in the smoky, jazzy environs of New Orleans' French Quarter. Just as quickly, I found myself falling for the musical seduction of overlapping instrumental voices and tonalities. Seductive as well was the contrast of Blanche's naïve vulnerability via a simple string quartet melody, with the trumpet's raw, brutish depiction of Stanley Kowalski.

If An Overture to Blanche can be described as musically suggestive, then the next work on the program, Antonin Dvorak's rarely performed symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel, was nothing if not blatantly illustrative. The music, which is actually constructed around a "theme and variations" set of motifs, is so tightly bound to the story that Richman felt obligated to preface the performance with his own humorous synopsis of the grisly fairy tale by Czech poet Karel Jaromir Erben.

The story tells of a young king who falls in love with a young woman working at a spinning wheel at a forest cottage where he stops for a drink of water, and of the woman's stepmother and stepsister, who cut off her hands and feet and gouge out her eyes in an attempt to disguise the stepsister and fool the king. However, the evil deception is revealed by a magic spinning wheel, the stepdaughter is restored to life, and all ends happily. It is a fairy tale after all.

And despite the gory details, it is the sometimes bright, sometimes eerie, fairy-tale-like quality of Dvorak's score that shines through. The KSO horns took the king's theme in the form of hunting horn-like fanfares that then reappear throughout; the solo violin introduces the young woman at her spinning wheel; a richly played brass chorale depicts a mysterious old man. However, at times Richman's musical storytelling seemed to drag; I felt that the episodic motifs lacked a bit of the late-Romantic-era give and take, and could have benefited from a much greater freedom with tempos. Despite that, most audience members returned to their respective cottages looking quite enchanted.