As the applause for Prometheus, William Bolcom’s new work for piano, chorus, and orchestra, died away at last Thursday evening’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concert, a distinguished-looking gentleman sitting next to me turned and said, “Well, I didn’t like that. How about you?” Fearing a harrumph, I carefully admitted that I did. Thankfully, the man just smiled politely. However, the assignment of black-and-white judgements on never-heard-before new music was a bit troubling for the simple reason that what we like or don’t like is based largely on our prior experiences; the long-term issues of a work’s value are substantially more complex. Music history is full of examples of works that were disliked, even hated, at their premieres, only to become quite acceptable, if not loved, as time goes on. The question is—will Bolcom’s work fall into that category? Probably not.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to admire in Prometheus, not the least of which is its method of creation. This was only the third performance of Bolcom’s work, a 2010 commission from a consortium of nine orchestras (of which the KSO was one) organized and coordinated by pianist Jeffrey Biegel. This was not the pianist’s first venture into “consortium commissions.” Biegel was first heard with the KSO in a 2007 performance of Lowell Lieberman’s Piano Concerto No. 3, written for Biegel under similar circumstances. The premise of joint commissions is, indeed, a valid one—spread the financial burden out over a number of contributors who subsequently enjoy the first performances.
Prometheus, based on Lord Byron’s poem of the same name, finds the Titan suffering his eternal punishment from Zeus for giving fire to the human race. Bolcom’s stated metaphor is that Western civilization is Prometheus, and our fire is the technology we have created which now enslaves us. Biegel’s opening piano solo was harsh, dissonant, and unforgiving—Prometheus chained to his rock—followed by unpitched intonating of the poem’s text from the chorus and then, cacophonous brass. The jangled bitterness eventually gave way, through calmer textures, to a more peaceful, almost lyrical conclusion—and a conclusion that brings sense and resolution to Bolcom’s dramatic journey through the poem. Biegel’s performance was entrancing, and the orchestra and chorus’s performance impressive.
At Friday evening’s performance, Biegel rewarded any suffering audience members with a beautifully played encore that was nothing less than honey after vinegar: the “Allemande” from J. S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816.
The featured work of the evening, however, was thought-provoking in quite another sense: Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (“Choral”). Performances of the work today have unfailingly been presented and accepted as big events, for reasons of marking special occasions as well as for the presence of the expanded forces of a large chorus and soloists. If for no other celebratory reason, this performance marked the conclusion of Lucas Richman’s journey with the KSO through the nine symphonies over the last several years. This excellent performance was the perfect culmination.
The symphony was celebratory for Beethoven as well, in that bits and shreds of thematic material collected over a lifetime are incorporated into the four movements, not to mention the fulfillment of the composer’s long-held desire to set Friedrich von Schiller’s ode An die Freude (“To Joy”) to music. For this reason, each movement can often seem like a separate work; it is the conductor’s task to somehow find a logical overview that throws off sparks of carefully tuned expectation for the finale without being obvious.
The third Adagio movement is ripe for too-solemn interpretations, in my listening experience. But Richman took confident tempos throughout, while leaving plenty of room for the gentle passages and wonderful woodwind textures that wistfully appear and fade.
It is the final “Ode to Joy” movement that created memories for the audience and carried them away into the night. Bass Benjamin LeClaire set the tone with a magisterial, commanding presence in his opening solo. Jonathan Subia’s strong tenor solo was fresh and clean. The solid foursome was completed by mezzo-soprano Katherine Altobello and alto Emily Douglass. The chorus, in its perch at the rear of stage, was the Knoxville Choral Society, the regular performance partner of the KSO, led by Eric Thorson.