When I first saw the programming lineup for the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra fall season, I sensed right away that something big and significant must be afoot. With Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major ("Titan") scheduled for the opening concert this weekend and Paul Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis set for October—each having intense demands on an orchestra—it appeared that UT Symphony music director and conductor James Fellenbaum had either been overcome by unfortunate delusions or had somehow managed yet another quantum leap in the orchestra's performance expectations. Thankfully, it appears to be the latter.
"When I started at UT, I visualized being able to tackle the Mahler One maybe 15 or 20 years down the road," Fellenbaum says. "But we're at that point now, and we can do it. This is without doubt our strongest orchestra yet."
Despite his bold show of programming confidence in the orchestra, Fellenbaum says that it has taken focused work by the faculty to achieve this level. "Over the last several years, there have been some holes in the orchestra due to sagging recruitment in some sections," he says. "We did a lot of work last season in terms of recruiting to get more players, not only in numbers, but in the performance quality. We got a large influx of violinists, including several new international students. So we now have really excellent sections around the orchestra—it was time to take the next step."
That next step also meant meeting those heavy Mahlerian instrumental requirements head on, with roughly double the number of woodwinds and brass players than are usually found in most symphonies. Given the requirement of seven horns in the Mahler symphony, some questions naturally arose concerning that section's viability, at least in the short term, following the untimely death last spring of horn faculty member Calvin Smith.
As it turned out, fears that horn students might leave UT for other music schools or choose not to apply have turned out to be unfounded. In fact, Fellenbaum has been amazed at what has happened.
"Oddly, four or five of the seven horns now playing in the Mahler are graduate students," he says. "I don't think we've ever had more than two graduate horn students playing in the orchestra before."
Several weeks ago, some concertgoers got a small preview of what awaits Sunday's audience. The orchestra performed the 20-minute fourth movement ("Stürmisch bewegt") from the Mahler at a UT School of Music memorial concert honoring Roger Stephens, the school's director who died in February. Fittingly, toward the end of the movement, Mahler instructs the horns to stand and be heard over the rest of the orchestra in a thunderous "Hallelujah Chorus"-esque moment evoking what the composer termed a "chorale of salvation from paradise after the waves of hell." Not without significance, too, is the fact that 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's own death in 1911.
After surviving the stamina-building experience of the Mahler symphony, the orchestra will have no respite in October, either. That concert will be under the baton of a guest conductor, Anthony Parnther, who has been conductor of the Orange County Symphony of Anaheim, Cal., and was a graduate of East Tennessee State University. In addition to the before-mentioned demanding Symphonic Metamorphosis, the program continues the tribute to Mahler with Blumine, which is the somewhat infamous deleted movement from the First Symphony. Also on the October bill will be Carl Maria von Weber's Andante und Rondo Ungarese. In that work, Parnther, who is also a bassoonist by education and trade, will welcome another bassoonist, UT alumnus Steven V. Ingel, as soloist.
With many new players in key positions, expectations are also high for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra's 2011-12 season that opens on Thursday and Friday with an all-Beethoven Masterworks concert. On the bill is the Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor featuring pianist Alon Goldstein, and the Coriolan Overture.
As Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz takes the stage for his first full season with the orchestra, the KSO and music director Lucas Richman will also be welcoming Jeffery Whaley as principal horn, Ebonee Thomas as principal flute, and Peter Cain as principal clarinet.