The word “change” is thrown about a lot these days—both optimistically and cynically. Proof that “change” is really just inevitable “continuation” was made poignantly apparent to those who attended the season’s final Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Chamber Classics series concert last weekend. The concert honored, in performance, Concertmaster Mark Zelmanovich, who is stepping down after 24 years with the orchestra—years in which the KSO has made amazing strides in quality. However, in an obviously unintended symbol of continuation, but one probably not lost on anyone in the audience, the concert also included this year’s dedicated original composition by Maestro Lucas Richman, Salutation No. 7, that went to Henry Jay, the 2-year-old son of Larsen and Adrian Jay, who is at the very beginning of his young concert-going life.
The works on the program were selected by Richman to reflect on different aspects of Zelmanovich’s life and career. Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34b, was an excellent choice for an opener—a fun, almost whimsical work that blends ethnic melodies with evocative textures. The work, originally written for clarinet, piano, and string quartet, was performed in an orchestrated version from 1934. The folksy, klezmer-like theme (from principal clarinetist Gary Sperl) was subsequently echoed in intriguing combinations by other combinations of instruments.
In a reference to Zelmanovich’s own immigration and work in Israel as a young man, Richman followed the Prokofiev with Concerto Grosso by Paul Ben-Haim. Ben-Haim, born Paul Frankenburger in Munich, emigrated from Germany in 1933 to British-controlled Palestine, what would later become the nation of Israel. Ben-Haim went on to become one of the notable Israeli composers of his generation. Oddly, this work, in its first ever performance by the KSO and unfamiliar to this reviewer, conjured up images of familiar times and places with some rather unique instrumental combinations. Bassists Steve Benne and Steve Clark combined with the cellos in a rare, and delightful, moment—similarly, the rarely soloing contrabassoon of Cora Nappo combined with the English horn of Elizabeth Telling.
The second half of the program brought Zelmanovich on stage to perform in works by Tchaikovsky and Joseph Haydn. Tchaikovsky’s Méditation, originally written for violin and piano and later orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov, featured Zelmanovich in a heartfelt performance as violin soloist. Méditation is nothing if not soothing and sweetly nostalgic, yet Richman kept a middle ground, saving the verklempt moments for the work that followed.
Joseph Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony,” the Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp Minor, concluded the afternoon. Haydn’s “Farewell” was written as a gentle hint to his employer, Prince Nicholas Esterházy, that his orchestra’s over-extended stay at the family’s summer palace was taxing the orchestra members, who were yearning to return to their families. For the first three movements, and the first half of the fourth, the work is a bit tense, even unhappy, in cloudy tones and dynamics that express impatience and longing. In the final Adagio section of the fourth movement, Haydn pulled his trick which has become a feature of most performances. Beginning with the oboe and the second horn and continuing in groups, the orchestra members stopped playing and walked off stage, until only two violins (Zelmanovich and Edward Pulgar) were left to conclude the work, ever more thinly, and ending more or less abruptly. Of course, Prince Esterházy got the hint; he returned his court to Eisenstadt the following day. And, the Knoxville audience understood the implication as well, giving Zelmanovich an extended standing ovation as appreciation and tribute for his years of service.
Next season, the KSO’s 75th anniversary season, will be one of change as the orchestra begins its search for a new concertmaster—change that may pull the orchestra in exciting new directions. Yes, things inevitably do change, but the life of an orchestra must continue.