Music for the Masses

Knoxville Symphony Orchestra has a little something for everybody in its new season

One has only to stand in the lobby of the Tennessee Theater at 7:45 p.m. on a symphony evening to understand the diversity of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra audience: regular patrons and University of Tennessee students; men in tuxedos and twentysomethings in jeans; ponytails and permed hair; high heels, sandals, and wingtips; cardigan sweaters and sparkly evening dresses. The one thing the concertgoers do have in common, though, is a compelling interest in orchestral music performed live in an acoustically superb concert hall. They don't, however, necessarily care for the same orchestral music.

Therein lies the task for KSO and music director Lucas Richman in programming a performance season. They have to satisfy—or try to satisfy, at least—both those that demand the familiar and those that want a little musical adventure.

Some of the complexities of programming are obvious. While a Mozart or Beethoven work will rarely draw complaints, contemporary music or even early 20th-century pieces can be quite another matter. Listeners may have no problem sitting through a film whose score is full of odd intervals, dissonance, and descriptive instrumental effects, but many of those same listeners would be quite unhappy to hear the same piece in a concert hall. And in between the two extremes of musical taste lies a vast repertoire of delightful works that rarely get performed.

With the concert lineup for KSO's 2008–2009 season, Richman seems to have arrived at an agreeable mix of the old, the new, and the in-between—works that should appeal to most concertgoers and that should keep the orchestra nicely challenged. With such a delightful selection, predicting season highlights is nearly impossible this time around. Although every concert seems to offer a compelling work or two, I have made a few rather subjective choices of special performances to look for.

The season-opening concert in September has, for the last few years, been one of works by American composers. The spotlight this year is on George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, featuring guest pianist Spencer Meyer. Meyer delighted a Knoxville audience in January with his performance at the Evelyn Miller Young Pianist series. Opening the concert will be Fanfare Ritmico by contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon. Higdon, who attended high school in Maryville, is considered one of the most significant composers now on the American scene. Two works of Leonard Bernstein will fill out the program: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and the Overture to Candide.

This season's Beethoven symphony offering will be the Symphony No. 7, on the November Masterworks concert. On the same bill will be the Max Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 featuring 24-year-old violinist Augustin Hadelich. Hadelich has made quite a name for himself since winning the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in 2006. Intriguing, too, will be a performance of Puccini's rarely heard Preludio Sinfonico.

January is the month for the Baroque lover, and well it should be. The Chamber Classic Series will offer three works by J.S. Bach and one by Handel, featuring soloists from the orchestra. The Bach Viola Concerto will feature KSO principal violist Kathryn Gawne; the Bach Concerto for Two Violins will feature violinists Mark Zelmanovich and Miroslav Hristov. Also on the program is the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Handel's Concerto Grosso, Opus 6, No. 1. Also of special interest in January is the Masterworks concert featuring pianist Navah Perlman, daughter of violinist Itzhak Perlman, performing the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24. A particular favorite of mine, the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4, "Italian," is also on the schedule.

February will see the world premiere of a work commissioned by KSO, Time Like an Ever Flowing Stream, by Knoxville composer and KSO member Mark Harrell. Johannes Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes and the Symphony No. 2 complete that Masterworks program.

April's offering is a "Choral Spectacular," a concert combining the forces of KSO and the Knoxville Choral Society. The clever mix of works includes Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliées, the Symphony No. 7 of Jean Sibelius, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and Borodin's Polovtsian Dances.

May will be Mahler—the Masterworks concert features the Mahler Symphony No. 5. The program will open with Richard Wagner's Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, and follow with the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 with guest pianist Alexander Ghindin, who, at age 17, was the youngest pianist to ever win the International Tchaikovsky Competition.

With a line-up of gifted guest artists and works ranging from the solidly familiar to the oddly esoteric, the 2008-2009 KSO season should offer something for everyone—and something for everyone to talk about. Sandals, though, are optional.