When chamber music ventured beyond the drawing rooms and libraries of its origins and into larger concert halls and theaters, it suffered a predictable fate. Subtlety and nuance, defining characteristics of the personality of a small ensemble, were invariably lost in larger spaces. Fortunately, though, there is no finer theater-sized hall—in Knoxville, at least—suited to chamber music than the Bijou Theatre. The space is surprisingly rewarding to chamber musicians, not only in the physical proximity of audience and performer but also in its amazingly bright and resonant acoustics, which carry musical details to every seat. Its antique charm and ambiance, even if a bit creaky, are warm and welcoming to both performers and concertgoers. On Sunday, chamber music returns to those well-trodden boards of the Bijou as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Principal Quartet opens this season’s Chamber Classics Series with works by Mozart, Puccini, and Smetana.
This season’s incarnation of the Principal Quartet features two new faces, but ones that are familiar to KSO concertgoers. Joining violist Kathryn Gawne and cellist Andy Bryenton will be violinists Sean Claire and Edward Pulgar, who is now KSO Associate Concertmaster.
The concert will open with Mozart’s Quartet in D Major for Strings, K. 499, nicknamed the “Hoffmeister” after Mozart’s publisher, friend, and fellow composer Franz Anton Hoffmeister. The K. 499, composed in 1786, follows the more familiar “Haydn” quartets and precedes the three “Prussian” quartets of 1789-90. While it is popular history that Mozart composed with ease and speed, there is evidence in an uncommon abundance of surviving sketches and revisions that Mozart struggled with the string quartet as a form. Nevertheless, the “Hoffmeister” is a mature and accomplished intellectual balance of the serious and the lighthearted. The quartet’s strains of optimism tinged with hints of foreboding are perhaps signs of the unconscious unease Mozart felt in venturing into the genre mastered by Haydn.
While Giacomo Puccini is known for his operas, his non-operatic works offer an intriguing glimpse inside the meanderings of a musical career. To this end, the Quartet will offer Puccini’s I Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) to conclude the first half of the program. Puccini wrote this brief six-minute elegiac work as a response to the death of Prince Amadeus of Savoy in 1890. The work is woven in dark and dramatic colors, yet it retains a lush lyricism that is characteristically Puccini. Ever practical, Puccini re-used the melodies from I Crisantemi three years later in the last act of his opera Manon Lescaut.
The concert will conclude with the Quartet No. 1 in E Minor for Strings (“From My Life”) by Bedrich Smetana. Although best known for his opera The Bartered Bride and the symphonic poems Má Vlast, Smetana composed two string quartets, the No. 1 being from 1876. As indicated by the subtitle “From My Life,” the piece has an autobiographical programmatic structure, for which Smetana provided an account. “My intention was to paint a tone picture of my life,” he wrote. “… [I]t is private and therefore written for four instruments, which should converse together in an intimate circle.”
In his comments on the four movements, Smetana further wrote, “The first movement depicts my youthful leanings toward art, the Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning of something I could neither express nor define.” The second movement has a polka-like flavor that recalls the days of youthful dancing. The third movement, Smetana explained, “reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my first wife.”
Smetana speaks of his deafness in the fourth movement. “The discovery that I could treat national elements in music, and my joy in following this path until it was checked by the catastrophe of the onset of my deafness, the outlook into the sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery, but remembering all the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret.”