Made in America

KSO kicks off its season with energetic performances of music by American performers

In profile, at least, the man seated at the piano bore some slight resemblance to the iconic American composer whose music he was playing. The man at the piano—guest pianist Spencer Myer. And the music—George Gershwin's Concerto in F. Had Gershwin been present for the opening concert of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra's 2008-2009 season last weekend—a concert of music by American composers—would he have applauded the young pianist as enthusiastically as the audience did? No doubt.

Following the popular success of his Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, Gershwin wrote the Concerto in F on a commission from the New York Philharmonic and its conductor, Walter Damrosch, for a Carnegie Hall concert in December 1925, with Gershwin himself performing as piano soloist. Gershwin's own piano performance style, which can be seen in early film footage, was percussive and flamboyant—a lingering result, no doubt, of his teenage years as a song demonstrator (a "piano pounder") in the Tin Pan Alley music publishing business. Myer, on the other hand, had a softer touch. But a touch that was still strong, clean, lyrical, and expressive, without having to resort to exaggerated dynamics to convey the piece's rhythmic spirit.

While the concerto is in the traditional three movements, the motifs contained within are those from an American jazz and folk idiom that European composers (such as Honegger and Milhaud, among others) attempted to emulate but were never able to with any real degree of success. The first movement offered an array of themes on, as Gershwin himself described, "the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life." The Adagio second movement's theme is in the form of a dreamy nocturne in a slow blues style, stated by the trumpet (KSO's Cathy Leach) with an interlude from the oboe (Phylis Secrist). Myer's piano then picked up the pace with infectious little phrases that sparkled like light dancing on water. The final movement, Allegro agitato, was a storm of motion and energy, driven by percussion, colorful retorts from woodwinds, and the hammering piano line. Ideas from the first movement were then recalled, and the piece concluded with a mirror of the opening.

Keeping in the Gershwin vein, Myer offered as an encore at the Friday evening performance a stunningly beautiful performance of the Earl Wild transcription of Gershwin's "Embraceable You."

Maestro Lucas Richman programmed the second half of the concert with two works by Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and the Overture to Candide. The Symphonic Dances, a 22-minute work, was constructed as an orchestral suite in 1961, following the 1957 Broadway production and the 1961 motion picture of West Side Story, with orchestration assistance from Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal.

Much of the energy of West Side Story—edgy, nervous, and scruffily urban—is driven by the dance sequences that were a fundamental part of the productions. Bernstein drew this energy from American jazz and Latin rhythms, as well as from the traditional symphonic and musical theater idioms. More than just a distillation of themes or a mere medley of tunes, Symphonic Dances takes the melodic and rhythmic energy and concentrates them into a unified whole.

A key feature of Bernstein's music was the generous use of percussion effects, both rhythmically and theatrically, and sometimes at a breathtaking pace. This meant quite the workout for the excellent KSO percussion and keyboard sections: Robert Adamcik, Clark Harrell, Andrew Adzima, Jay Oberfeitinger, Scott Eddlemon, and keyboardist Carol Zinavage. However, Richman carefully controlled the dynamics so that the more lyrical sections, like the "Somewhere" melody, with its beautiful viola passage, could offer a balanced relief from the frenetic pace of the more violent dances.

Richman opened the concert with Fanfare Ritmico, by contemporary American composer Jennifer Higdon. This delightful, high-energy work—commissioned as part of the Fanfares Project in 2000—was yet another feast of percussion, but not without brilliant tonal contrasts and a refreshing exclamatory crispness that led right up to the conclusion. As a fanfare, the piece is short. But it is so intriguing, one almost wishes for a second hearing.