To say the least, it’s been a very busy couple of weeks for Maestro James Fellenbaum. As conductor of the University of Tennessee Symphony, he opened a busy November with last Sunday’s concert of the music of British composers Malcolm Arnold and Edward Elgar. Earlier in the week, as resident conductor of the Knoxville Symphony, he conducted five Young People’s Concerts—school-day programs by the KSO designed to stir the musical imagination of area public- and private-school students. A few days before that, he was in Oak Ridge for an audition rehearsal for the music director position with the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra. And just days earlier—again for the KSO—he assisted Maestro Lucas Richman with the preparation of the most recent Masterworks concert, as well as supervising the supertitles for that concert’s performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
To finish off that whirlwind period with an important debut, Fellenbaum will take the podium in the Bijou Theatre on Sunday for the opening concert of the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra series. That program, the first for Fellenbaum as conductor of a KSO subscription-series concert, will feature Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra. But in a interesting twist, it will also include two other serenades for strings—one by British composer Edward Elgar and one by Czech composer Josef Suk.
“The Tchaikovsky is, without a doubt, the most substantial of the three works on the concert,” Fellenbaum says. “Certainly, it is the most often performed, and it will be the most familiar to concertgoers.”
Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, first performed in St. Petersburg in 1881, appears regularly on concert stages due to it’s broad popularity with audiences. Both the KSO and the Oak Ridge Symphony have performed it in this decade. This popularity is not a quirk of history, though, but richly earned. While the piece exhibits lush emotion that flows straight out of Russian Romanticism, Tchaikovsky also intended it to be Mozartian in form and spirit. “This,” he wrote, “is my homage to Mozart; it is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model.”
In contrast, Josef Suk’s Serenade in E-flat Major for Strings, Op. 6, first performed in Prague in 1894, may be unfamiliar to a lot of concertgoers. “The Suk is almost as substantial as the Tchaikovsky,” Fellenbaum explains. “If listeners are familiar with [Antonin] Dvorák, they’ll find the Suk to be in a similar Czech vein.”
The connection between Suk and Dvorák is more than mere nationality. Suk studied with Dvorák at the Prague Conservatory and later married his eldest daughter, Otilie.
“When I heard the Suk for the first time, I found it to be just as engaging as Dvorák,” Fellenbaum says. “The second movement, for example, has the waltzing quality that sounds typically Czech, but I don’t think Dvorák would have written something quite like that. Suk has taken Dvorák’s mentoring and created something that is in the same musical language but that is his own. I think Suk will be a pleasant surprise and discovery for a lot of people. They’ll immediately be taken in.”
To begin the musical arc that passes through Suk on its way to Tchaikovsky, Fellenbaum will open the concert with a string serenade completed in 1892 by British composer Edward Elgar, the Serenade in E Minor for Strings, Op. 20.
“The Elgar Serenade is a beautiful piece to start with,” Fellenbaum says. “It’s a shorter serenade than the other two, and it’s also a noticeably smaller, more intimate work. I’ve always had a fondness for the way Elgar crafts his melodies that’s very engaging. It has what I might call the ‘British’ approach to melody—atmospheric, maybe, similar in feel to Ralph Vaughn Williams or Benjamin Britten.”
With his background as a cellist as well as a conductor, Fellenbaum has a definite affinity for his fellow string players in the KSCO and for the works on this chamber series concert. “This is a really ideal concert for me to have my first subscription-series concert with the KSO,” he says. “With this literature, with these players, in this musical community, it’s really going to be a joy for me.”