With the benefit of historic distance, it seems only natural that the music of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg belongs together on the same program, as it did with Sunday afternoon’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Chamber Classics Concert. Despite the two composers’ philosophical and stylistic differences, and their moments of animosity, both were controversial and pivotal forces in early 20th-century music. Sadly, both composers were also unfortunate illustrations of how war can irretrievably alter the course of music and art, as both composers became Los Angeles émigrés during World War II. Despite being a part of the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood community and continuing their music careers, neither composer ever received a film score commission.
“I don’t write ‘lovely’ music,” Schoenberg emphatically told MGM producer Irving Thalberg once, during an interview for the studio’s upcoming The Good Earth. Yet it had been the loveliness and lush Wagner- and Mahler-like qualities of Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) from 1899—not Schoenberg’s later turn to the alienation of 12-tone music—that had attracted Thalberg, who later balked at hiring Schoenberg. KSO music director Lucas Richman’s choice of the chamber orchestra version of Verklärte Nacht (originally a string sextet) to close the afternoon spoke volumes about how history, and the public, have generally regarded Schoenberg’s musical arc.
The centerpiece of the afternoon was the suite version (with adapted narration) of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (“A Soldier’s Story”) from 1918. The work’s original conception included actors, dancers, and a septet of instrumentalists in what was to be a traveling music theater piece telling the tale of a soldier/fiddler tricked by the devil. The end of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 put an end to Stravinsky’s plans after a single performance.
The influence of American jazz, or at least a European’s abstract idea of jazz, lies at the heart of the piece. While the instrumentation (a violin, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, double bass, and percussion) might suggest a jazz combo, Stravinsky’s music is rooted quite solidly in post-Romantic European style. The musical meter changes constantly—not frenetically, but in a way that implies movement that races along and then pauses for poetic emphasis.
And there was movement. Along with Thomas Cervone’s nicely interpreted narration, two dancers from the Appalachian Ballet Company, Olivia Miller and Kylie Morton, revealed several segments of the story. Movement of the musical sort came from the violin passages, performed perceptively by Gabriel Lefkowitz. Peter Cain’s clarinet work and Ellen Connor’s bassoon continue to amaze. Richman kept a nice overall balance of boldness and harmonic introspection amid the changing instrumental color and meter.
Richman opened the afternoon with Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra, from 1946-47, the composer’s first European commission after relocating to the United States. This is Stravinsky at arguably the height of his neoclassical best, a work that is a satisfying combination of modern harmony and dissonance, of rhythmical starts and stops. Unfortunately, the staccato moments followed by legato ones are traps where string imprecisions stand out like tipsy party guests. Imprecision aside, this was a wonderfully smile-inducing performance of deliciously eccentric music.
Sunday’s concert was one of the more intriguing but technically difficult concerts of the season for the orchestra, one that may not have been possible until now. As another indication of what new musical journeys lie ahead for the KSO, Richman let the audience in on the news of a new KSO series next season for small ensembles at Remedy Coffee in the Old City—just the jolt we’ve been looking for.