KSO Starts Its 75th Season With Big Interpretations of Tchaikovsky's Greatest Hits

It was an evening of symbols last weekend for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra as it began its 2010-11 concert season. The KSO had reached a symbolic milestone, its 75th season of existence, that represented the health and vitality of its operation and the continuing enthusiasm of its audience. It was also an evening of cymbals—and all manner of other percussion effects—as KSO music director Lucas Richman chose to open the season with a celebratory crash and bang from a collection of Tchaikovsky works known more for their enthusiastic effects and crowd-pleasing finales than for an abundance of nuance or subtlety.

Despite the presence of in-your-face, gut-stirring barrages beginning and ending the concert, the performance highlight was the pleasant contrast of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 35, with guest violinist Dylana Jenson. Although I had never heard Jenson in performance previously, I thought I knew what to expect. Instead, Jenson took the audience on what turned out to be a remarkably fresh journey through the familiar territory of the concerto. Although Jenson had been a child prodigy, she now possesses the mastery and overview of a brilliant mature artist who needs neither ostentation nor gimmickry to impress.

The dangers of playing such a well-known and often-performed work over a career are of falling into the trap of ho-hum interpretations or feeling the need to embellish the Romanticism with excessive dramatic overstatements of vibrato or dynamics. Jenson would have none of those traps, instead articulating rapid passages lightly and cleanly, yet taking time to revel, when needed, in delicious warm tones from her instrument.

The second movement, Canzonetta: Andante, seemed to be a bit brisker in tempo than one is used to hearing, but this was by no means a negative. However, one of the movement’s enjoyable pieces of texture, the echoing of phrases by the clarinet, seemed somewhat understated in the overall balance. The finale movement, which passes through Russian dance melodies on its way to the big accelerated ending, is an artful model of how to build the thrill of expectations.

Tchaikovsky spent some months in early 1880 touring Italy and put his impressions of that country into a work completed that summer, Capriccio Italien. While situated in Rome, his hotel room was adjacent to the barracks of the Royal Cuirassiers. The probable irritation of being awakened by bugle reveille became the work’s opening fanfare-like theme, introduced by the trumpets and then taken up in harmony by the other brass. As expected, the KSO brass was cleanly focused and warmly balanced. The melodic pictures of Roman street life that followed the opening were a feast of instrumental colors. One ends up liking this piece merely for those sensual textures, and for the accelerating tempos that drive toward the inevitably big ending.

Richman closed the evening with a familiar work heard often enough, but rarely in the concert hall: the Festival Overture: The Year 1812, depicting the Battle of Borodino and the ensuing retreat of Napoleon’s army from Moscow. In the United States, the work has become almost a necessary inclusion in outdoor pops programs involving patriotic themes leading to fireworks—and it has certainly served that purpose for the KSO’s July 4 concerts. However one deals with the irony of confused nationalistic purposes, one must admit that the work’s success lies in its ability to paint an abstract picture of patriotic intent. And one must admire it for its use of simple derived themes and blatant sonic effects. It really is quite another beast when heard in the concert hall, particularly when one can actually hear and savor the quieter moments as well as the percussion effects. However, since even Tchaikovsky admitted that he doubted the work’s ultimate artistic value, we should perhaps notate this concert as “a joyous and enthusiastic opener.” I’m certain there will be plenty of opportunity for real superlatives as the 75th season progresses.

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