Pianist Benjamin Hochman and KSO Engage With Masterful Performances of Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Strauss

Although Felix Mendelssohn's reputation has never really been in doubt, the 200th anniversary year of the composer's birth has served—for orchestras all over the world—as an excellent excuse to spotlight one of the abiding geniuses of 19th-century music. In fact, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra offered several Mendelssohn works last spring and will offer more next spring. But as 2009 wanes, the KSO gave the Mendelssohn bicentennial year one last hurrah with its Masterworks Concert last weekend, albeit with one of his less deep and more presentational works—the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor.

If nothing else, the performance of the Mendelssohn served to introduce Knoxville audiences to a talented young pianist, Benjamin Hochman. Hochman brought to the work a performance that sparkled, rippled, and effervesced with life and love. When one learns that the concerto was the work of a 22-year old Mendelssohn—who wrote it in only a few short days while infatuated with a gifted 17-year old pianist, Delphine von Schauroth, to whom he dedicated it—Hochman's romantic, but certainly not frivolous, approach seems absolutely obvious and spot-on. The glittering passages of addictive melodies might lead some pianists to over-romanticize the work for the sake of showmanship, but not Hochman. His was a somewhat light and controlled touch that yielded an almost pearlescent tone. The final spirit-lifting crescendo with the orchestra was exhilarating.

The concert's performance arc began, though, with an early symphony of Joseph Haydn, the Symphony No. 16 in B-flat Major. While I have certainly been a proponent of hearing more Haydn—and, thankfully, we shall next spring—I couldn't help but wonder why this particular symphony (out of 106) was chosen. Having said that, its simple opening theme is very engaging, with just a hint of the subtle twists of later Haydn works; its exciting Presto finale was satisfying and completely enjoyable.

With the intermission to clear our palates, Maestro Lucas Richman served up the second half of the concert with two works of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss derived from their operas: Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite.

Wagner combined the Prelude of Tristan und Isolde with its final "Transfiguration" into a concert piece in order to stir up production interest in the years that led up to its eventual premiere in 1865 at the Munich Opera. While the characteristics of the score do not specifically shock us today, Tristan was undeniably a signpost of change in moving beyond the classical tonal system. The chromaticism and lack of a recognizable tonal center is not jarring or unpleasant, but rather seems totally natural—almost predictable—as it approaches a tonal resolution that never comes. This was not a merely arbitrary device, but Wagner's symbolic description of the two lovers' unresolved desires.

Admittedly, Richman has not in the past come readily to mind when considering Wagnerian conductors, but therein lies the evening's surprise. On this occasion he drew a radiant and glowing performance from the orchestra that was both generous in the Wagner characteristic of expanding and contracting dynamics, as well as in the details and precision of individual performances, particularly the woodwinds.

Richman concluded the evening by moving into the 20th century with the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. Although the opera premiered in Dresden in 1911, Strauss did not assemble the parts into a concert suite until 1944. The danger inherent in the piece lies in the fact that Strauss' use of waltzes, taken out of context, can give one the impression of just a medley of tunes from the opera. In Richman's beautiful interpretation, though, it unfolded through the vivid orchestral textures more like one of Strauss' tone poems, although a more relaxed one—which is high praise indeed.

Strauss used the horns extensively in his orchestrations and this piece is no exception. The KSO horns, under principal Calvin Smith, were solid throughout the work, but particularly in the infamous "whooping horns" passage, that well-known and signature passage at the beginning of the work. Taken overall, the KSO's balance was as good as I've ever heard it.