In introducing his new work Time Like an Ever Flowing Stream for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra audience last week, composer Mark Harrell described the piece as "dark, yet optimistic." While some audience members may have been guided by an explanation of intent, the work actually needed none. It is a work from which ideas and emotions freely flow. And like other works without descriptive titles, it is a piece that can easily stand alone, proving Harrell to be a talented painter of musical images.
The KSO played with noticeable determination for their horn section colleague. Following the opening plaintive passage from a single horn, played by Calvin Smith, the darkness of tone filled the orchestra. The atmosphere was held in place by moments of deep color from the low brass—trombones and tuba—piled one on top of another, occasionally sad, occasionally angry. Yet the sadness always seemed to be assuaged by an eventual brightness aided by the trumpets, hopeful phrases from the woodwinds, and the lyrical moments in the strings. As a horn player himself, and as an instrumental instructor, Harrell really knows the brass instruments well, and how to write for them to construct the images he requires.
The work's grand reward, I believe, was that it provided listeners with fertile ground for creating their own mental images. Given that ability to draw emotion and drama from musical textures, I would not be surprised at all to see Harrell eagerly sought out for film scores in the near future.
Maestro Lucas Richman filled out the concert, entitled Beloved Brahms, with two works by Johannes Brahms, the Liebeslieder Waltzer and the Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73. The Knoxville Chamber Chorale joined the KSO for the beautiful and oddly sensual Liebeslieder Waltzer ("Love Song Waltzes"). The suite is an orchestrated collection of nine waltzes originally written for four voices and two pianos. Without reading the English translation of the songs' German texts, one might easily have taken these pieces as innocuous, charming entertainments. But the texts, from poems by Georg Friedrich Daumer and brought to life by the warm interpretation and crisp diction of the singers, seethed with a passion that Brahms constructed out of his own expressions of love and futile desires for the daughter of his friend Clara Schumann.
The second half of the concert consisted of the Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major. The Friday evening performance was virtually flawless, yet the long first movement, an Allegro non troppo, and the second movement, an Adagio non troppo, still felt oddly unfocused. The third movement, however, magically sparkled to life led by the familiar and refreshing melody in the oboe. By the end of the finale movement, all distractions had been banished, and all doubts cast aside as the very exuberant brass punctuate the finish.
The KSO weekend continued Sunday afternoon at the Bijou with a Chamber Classic series concert featuring a reprise of Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzer and two works by Felix Mendelssohn: the Symphony No. 4 ("Italian") from last month's Masterworks and the Overture to Die schöne Melusine ("The Fair Melusina"), Op. 32. In the case of the previously performed "Italian" symphony and the Brahms, it is an interesting exercise in perception to note how the different hall and the reduced forces of the chamber orchestra affected the works. The Brahms, featuring once again the excellent Knoxville Chamber Chorale, was equally charming in the Bijou. The Mendelssohn "Italian" actually took on an entirely new feel—quite refreshing and pleasantly lighter—given the bright acoustics and intimate environment of the Bijou. Naturally, the subtleties of woodwinds benefited, given their larger share of the overall balance.
In many ways, the extreme subtlety of the Bijou's acoustics can offer challenges as well, for the tiniest musical gesture can often be heard as easily in the rear balcony as in the front row. Such was the challenge for Richman in the Overture to Die schöne Melusine. The piece was a product of Mendelssohn's interest in the medieval story of Melusine, a woman condemned to live one day a week as half-serpent/half-woman (or as a mermaid, as was more popular in the 19th-century versions of the story), and her husband, who must not see her on that day. The two themes—a delicate one for Melusine, full of watery arpeggios in woodwinds, and a forceful, heavier one in the strings representing the husband—depend on careful attention to dynamics and tempo. Richman did indeed maintain that graceful balance between strings and winds—a beautiful juxtaposition of flickering light and the undulation of waves.