Two years ago, I reviewed a Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concert that centered mostly on the guest appearance of the violinist Midori and her performance in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor. On that same concert, however, was the audition appearance of violinist Gabriel Lefkowitz, who was one of the candidates for the KSO’s open concertmaster position. The then-23-year-old’s solo violin work in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben elicited this comment: “While other violinists may have feared suffering by comparison with a nationally known virtuoso on the same bill, Lefkowitz’s performance proved he was—at the very least—an equally brilliant musical communicator and interpreter, as well as a wonderfully proficient orchestral player.”
Although I just love it when I’m right, such a conclusion was fairly unanimous—Lefkowitz got the job. A season and a half later, Knoxville audiences, too, have become well aware of the communication and interpretation skills of Lefkowitz. In last weekend’s KSO Masterworks concert, the violinist temporarily stepped out of his concertmaster duties to perform as soloist in Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major. The buzz and chatter, either in bold comments or whispered asides, was quite clear—that Lefkowitz, concertmaster and violin soloist for the evening, was Knoxville’s new star.
Korngold’s Violin Concerto was one of several works that marked the composer’s return to the concert hall from his self-imposed exile in the wilderness of Hollywood film scores during Hitler’s devastation of Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. The composer’s return, instead of leaving lyrical Hollywood music behind for the brave new 20th-century world that Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg had created, featured a successful melding of film-melody lyricism and jagged chromaticism. The opening theme of the concerto is drawn from the 1937 film Another Dawn, followed later by the theme from a 1939 William Dieterle film, Juarez. The main theme of the second movement is from Korngold’s Oscar-winning score for Anthony Adverse. The final movement has high-energy binges mixed with some original melodies, and contrasts rhythmically with the thematic material from The Prince and the Pauper.
Lefkowitz’s mastery of the Korngold was stunning and endlessly entertaining. Passages were perfectly phrased and punctuated, setting them apart from the orchestral textures whether the violin was singing lyrically or cutting sharp staccato edges. The virtuosic sections of the third movement were handled effortlessly and with beautiful detail of tone.
As important as solid musicality is, I should also mention the positive effect Lefkowitz’s charismatic presence has apparently had on the concert-going audience. If the attendance and reaction of a group of twentysomething young women seated next to me on Thursday evening are any evidence, Knoxville’s inspiring concertmaster is creating quite a bit of excitement in the music scene, in more ways than one.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Brahms’ final symphony, the Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, a brilliant, thrilling work that is both contemplative and dramatically forceful. (This piece was KSO music director and conductor Lucas Richman’s audition work when he was vying for his position in 2002.) While the Thursday evening performance was a little too dynamically homogenous overall, by Friday evening all was finessed, confidence was solidified, and details flowed richly out of a background of power under skillful control.
The second Andante movement began with a solemn passage from the third and fourth horns (Mark Harrell and Robert Owen), which are then joined by the woodwinds, specifically the clarinets and bassoons, against nicely balanced pizzicato strings. The third movement was robust and full of life, with bold dynamic statements that seem to range from soul-searching to absolute ponderousness. The fourth movement, with its somewhat quirky construction beginning with a chaconne theme and its short sets of variations, was nonetheless delightful. Especially noteworthy was the lovely flute passage performed by KSO’s principal flute, Ebonee Thomas.
Richman began the evening with Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to his opera Der Freischutz. The overture starts quietly, almost mysteriously and seductively, but those moods give way to powerful joy and orchestral triumph that is magnificently satisfying.
Yes, the buzz was there. An intangible excitement seemed to surround last week’s concerts—an excitement that is as much giddy anticipation for what’s next from KSO as it was for the evenings’ magnificent and well-played concerts.