Symphony orchestra schedules are created far in advance—so one had to wonder what was on the mind of Knoxville Symphony Orchestra music director Lucas Richman last winter as he programmed the all-Beethoven concert that opened the orchestra's 2011-12 season last weekend. Having completed one full cycle of the Beethoven nine symphonies with the KSO, he was probably eager to begin a second one by offering the work from his first season, the Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"). Combined with the Piano Concerto No. 3 and the Coriolan Overture, the three classics from Beethoven made up a solid program, but, at first glance, seemed to lack the raw excitement of musical diversity or a ceremonial big bang that announces, literally and figuratively, "We're back!"
But the orchestra was back, and in ways that were phenomenally impressive in both form and spirit. The impact of personnel changes, including a new concertmaster, Gabriel Lefkowitz, was noticeably positive. Richman and the KSO—not really needing that new-season big bang after all—set about giving the audience a view of its future in which interpretation and performance have obviously reached a substantially new level.
After opening with the Coriolan Overture, the orchestra was joined by the pianist Alon Goldstein for the Beethoven concerto. Goldstein's Beethoven was actually quite a genuine surprise, not only having none of the overly brash egotism that one might expect, but going even further into introspection. His smoothly tooled articulation was gently textured by the subtle rhythmical license that pushed and pulled and tugged, urging the listener closer in order to catch each turn of phrase. So personal was his interpretation that, at the Thursday evening performance, a rubato moment in the first movement barely escaped being an odd syncopation. Nonetheless, this was a product of the pianist's heart and soul.
The largo second movement was indeed that, almost mesmerizing in its carefully crafted restraint, yet with an optimistic luminous tone. The orchestral accompaniment was equally well-balanced here, with Beethoven's gentle woodwind passages alternating with one another against the piano's rippling stream. One had to admire the communication between Richman and Goldstein here that yielded ebb-and-flow moments of true captivating beauty.
The finale movement was a beautifully entertaining mix of dialogues—somewhat Mozartean in construction—of the themes from the piano and echoes from the woodwinds, solidified by the punctuated dynamics in the strings.
As if he felt the need to contrast his interpretative restraint in the concerto, Goldstein offered as encore one of Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera's Danzas Argentines. The contrast was effective; the work was wild with passion and twisting with intricate but enticing dissonances.
The second half of the program was devoted to Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, "Eroica," a work certainly capable of delivering a ceremonial bang. However, Richman stayed well clear of ostentation here, instead content to showcase his orchestra's ability to deliver wonderful dynamics as well as precision and warmth, especially in the strings. Even the opening movement, which can be rendered as an overpowering demonstration of battle, was colorful, vibrant, and alive with Beethoven's characteristic woodwind passages appearing and disappearing, counterbalanced with enough driving assertiveness from the entire orchestra.
For the second movement, Richman found humility in the Funeral March that he marked with careful tempos that highlighted the subdued and plaintive colors in the woodwinds, notably from the oboe's theme, played gorgeously by Phylis Secrist.
To counter the preceding mournfulness, Richman offered the third movement a real driving tempo, coupled with a luscious show of ensemble playing from the horn section.
Thankfully, the Finale lost none of the freshness and intensity that had been woven into the preceding movements. There was a lilting grandness here offset by a set of variations on a theme in which quintessential Beethoven orchestral colors eventually give way to a racing, triumphant close. And with the close came a feeling of exhilaration—perhaps not a bang, but a genuine feeling of achievement by an orchestra beginning an exciting future this season.