It’s odd how the mere mention of 20th-century music sends some people running for cover while many others stay to luxuriate in it. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, which regularly fills the Tennessee Theatre, had a few more empty seats than usual, by my eye, for its program of early 20th-century music last weekend—the music of Russians Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich. The unfortunate irony of this is two-fold: Rachmaninoff has less in common with the 20th century than he does with the lushness of the late-19th-century music of Tchaikovsky. And the young Shostakovich’s first symphony displays none of the tonal bitterness that would later haunt his works while under the watchful eye of the Soviet authorities. Ironic, too, was that those timid souls opting out of the concert missed not only one of the season’s best performances by the KSO, but also an undeniably brilliant performance by the young pianist Adam Golka.
As the 22-year-old Golka walked on stage for the performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, his tall, lanky frame looked a bit stiff. Using a regular orchestra player’s chair instead of a piano bench to accommodate his height, Golka was seated in what looked like an uncomfortably low position at the piano. But as the gentle opening theme played out, any concerns were immediately banished by what seemed to be a remarkably introspective connection to the work and a refreshingly audacious interpretation.
Rachmaninoff composed his third piano concerto for his own American tour in 1909. He wrote into it a high level of technical difficulty that suited his own ability and that he knew would impress both music professionals and audiences. In fact, the concerto gained the reputation among pianists as being fiendishly difficult. Golka had no trouble with those technical challenges and in fact incorporated accurate and seemingly effortless rippling passages, subtle and delicate tones, and powerful rapid-fire chord bursts into long, flowing connected phrases. The ability to take a such a grand overview represents a musical maturity that one does not necessarily expect in a young performer. Added to this were moments of what seemed to be a synergistic feeding frenzy in terms of dynamics and tempo between Golka and Maestro Lucas Richman, resulting in a finale that drew the captivated audience to their feet.
On the first half of the program was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, completed in 1925 and a product of the 18-year-old composer’s culminating studies at the Leningrad Conservatory. This work established Shostakovich’s name both in the Soviet Union and in western Europe. The vitality of the work comes from the quirkiness of a talented youth torn between the pre-revolution tradition of his conservatory and his eagerness to discover and contribute to the new musical language of the Marxist social structure, as ill-defined as that might be. That search would turn out to be somewhat Kafka-esque for Shostakovich as his work rose and fell in Soviet acceptance in ways that now seem quite mystifying.
The youthfulness of the symphony comes at the expense of structure, but that is certainly compensated for with texture. These textures, which show up like jangled nervous exclamations amid flashes of sardonic humor, were a feast for the KSO players with exposed moments—piano, clarinet, flute, bassoon, trumpet, and percussion, to name a few. Richman, too, obviously enjoyed the displays of energy and dynamism, for he turned over what seemed to be every last bit of youthful vitality in the work.
Richman opened the concert with another Rachmaninoff work, Vocalise. A wordless song, originally written for soprano and piano and premiered in 1916, Vocalise was later adapted by the composer into several different instrumental forms, including an orchestra-only version in 1919. The KSO’s rendition was warm and lush, hardly a big, bad 20th-century wolf to be feared and avoided.