So much music, so little time, so many surprises.
As the program notes for last week’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concerts informed us, it has been 15 years since KSO last performed Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. In that time, the orchestra’s baton has changed hands, orchestra members have come and gone, and the audience itself has a different look. So for many, the Mahler symphony may have been a new work. Yet for everyone, it seems, this Mahler was a breath of fresh air.
To be honest, this was definitely not the Mahler I was expecting. Many conductors—too many, in fact—feel that the length and breadth of the Mahler symphonies, coupled with the orchestral potential of so much instrumentation, requires them to turn to heavy-handed excesses to keep the pieces interesting. Happily, Maestro Lucas Richman was not one of those. While he clearly enjoyed the thrill of dramatic outbursts and punctuations, Richman took the careful storyteller’s approach, avoiding the Mahler trap of losing thematic passages amid emotional—but directionless and unbalanced—detail and texture.
A perfect example of this focused approach was the central Scherzo third movement. Following the opening horn solo, played with luminous tone by principal Calvin Smith, the movement turned bouncy and playful, and quite brassy, but not overly so. Richman clearly knew his goal and avoided the potential pitfall of getting caught up in excessive emotion.
The following lyrical Adagietto was a stunning contrast. Richman asked for—and received—gorgeous dynamics from the strings. The Rondo finale was a feast of bouncing counterpoint and interjected themes that burst from the KSO brass. While the performances were not without a few unfortunate technical bobbles, the symphony’s overall impact will make this concert one to be compared with in the future—assuming we don’t have to wait another 15 years.
Another surprise awaited the Wagner lovers, with the composer’s Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. In the past, I have felt that Richman’s approach to Wagner preludes had been a bit too bland—majestic, but lacking the intriguing contrast in the dynamic extremes between light playfulness and blaring boldness that Wagner often used to reveal his leitmotivs. In this performance, though, Richman was carefully tuned into these moments, such as the suddenly hushed orchestra revealing the oboe’s theme. And remembering that the prelude is really music theater, Richman practically yanked the audience out of their seats with the crescendo near the end.
The third surprise of the evening was pianist Alexander Ghindin, who joined Richman and the KSO for Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major. The Liszt is a work for both technical virtuosity and lyricism, and Ghindin had both in amazing quantities. Having been lulled into a sense of resigned complacency over some of the pianists I had heard this season, I was totally unprepared for Ghindin’s combination of power and accuracy. At first I was stunned by his ability to produce such volume without distortion. That gave way to the suspicion that volume and artful delicacy could not co-exist or be maintained, yet the combination lasted beautifully. Ghindin seemed to attack both the bold chord runs and the numerous trills with the same fearlessness.
Despite the boldness, the lyrical moments were intriguingly poignant, such as the piano passages hauntingly echoed first by the clarinet of Gary Sperl, then by the solo violin of Mark Zelmanovich. The amazing contradiction is that Ghindin’s control allowed him to play softly without playing quietly.
As an encore, Ghindin offered the Vladimir Horowitz transcription of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. With all the ostentatious features of the march—the solo piccolo line, blasts of brass, and the crashing cymbals—beautifully and wildly integrated into an eye-opening work for single piano, this is the ultimate encore piece for a bold, unabashed virtuoso. I’m sure I’m not alone, though, in hoping Ghindin makes a return visit with works that show another side of this obviously amazing and talented pianist.