There's something about end-of-the-season concerts that always seems to inspire a bit of nostalgia for the past year of music, and a bit of optimism for the next. Of course, if you add in a warm May evening and bookend the concert with Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance marches, as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra did in its concerts last weekend, it is practically impossible not to feel a little sentimental.
Sentimentality, of a sort, is at the heart of English composer Edward Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 38 ("Enigma"), which comprised the second half of KSO's program. The 14 variations that follow the Andante theme statement were Elgar's musical portraits of people close to him—"dedicated to my friends pictured within"—indicated by initials or a nickname in the title of the variation.
These impressions, woven with the texture, color, and emotion of English Romanticism, vary from the quietly humorous to the overtly lyrical. Subtle melodies, such as the beautifully played string solos in two of the variations, VI ("Ysobel") and XII ("BGN"), and subtle woodwind gestures, as in X ("Dorabella"), contrasted with the beautiful Adagio melody of the familiar Variation IX ("Nimrod"). The task for Maestro Lucas Richman was to keep a lightness and precision in the instrumental details without sacrificing the vibrant breath and lushness of romantic orchestral dynamics. He definitely avoided the feared unnatural heaviness or overwrought emotion. But lacking, perhaps, was that subtle and hard-to-define quality of a lively, yet restrained, passion. It is said that English orchestras and English conductors have an intrinsic ability in this regard, but this reviewer would probably need more convincing.
The featured billing of the KSO season finale belonged to Nicoló Paganini's Concerto No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 6, with guest violinist Ilya Kaler. Paganini composed his six violin concerti to showcase his own virtuosic skills on the instrument, and he alone performed them in his lifetime.
Modern audiences have few current contexts for understanding the special appeal that extreme virtuosic showmanship might have had to audiences in the first half of the 19th century. Since that time, violins and violin technique have changed. Today, many more violinists, and at younger ages, attempt these vehicles with unbelievable success. What's left for us as a 21st-century audience, then, is to enjoy them just as one would have in 1819—for their amusement and sheer delight.
Paganini expertly built anticipation for the violin's first entrance with a surprisingly long orchestral introduction—over three minutes—complete with maddening false endings and cymbal crashes. This introduction, while tuneful, is lightweight, but it does its job. One can hardly wait for the soloist to begin.
Kaler was an intriguing and enjoyable performer to watch. He radiated a confidence of experience and a restrained joy that put the audience at ease—even if, amid the madness of double-stopped thirds, harmonics, and ricochet bowing, came some oddly pitched passages. He wasn't particularly bothered by them, nor was the audience.
Richman opened and closed the concert with two of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance marches. All five of the marches have a similar structure—an opening melody that repeats after the central march theme. The opening piece, the No. 4 in G Major from 1907, has for its beginning a light, dancing motif that the orchestra handled with clean and pleasant contrasts. As an encore to the evening, the orchestra concluded with the all too familiar Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, ensuring that the audience left the theater with diplomas in hand after another year of faithful attendance.