KSO Explores the Simple Pleasures of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony

One of the occupational hazards of writing about the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky is that the composer’s addictive little phrases and orchestral textures seep into the recesses of the brain and stick there, ready to replay for days on end. Such was the case with the Tchaikovsky Polonaise on last month’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concert, and such is the case with the composer’s Symphony No. 3 in D Major, which concluded the KSO concerts last weekend.

Of course, this is one of the reasons for Tchaikovsky’s popularity as a composer of ballet music—his motifs and themes are melodiously intriguing, rhythmically addictive, and their simplicity can easily complement the visualization of movement. Unfortunately, simplicity of form is not necessarily a positive asset for the composer of symphonies and abstract works, something even Tchaikovsky admitted about his earlier efforts, and something he vigorously dealt with in his fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies.

However, in the Tchaikovsky Third—completed in 1875, just before the composer started work on his first ballet, Swan Lake, for the Bolshoi Ballet—one can hear the ballet composer struggling to emerge, a composer who is endlessly charming and entertaining, but one who has not yet found the language of a complex and mature symphonic form. It is generally for this reason that Tchaikovsky’s Third gets only occasional performances today.

Oddly, though, the fact that it is rarely performed makes it that much more interesting for those who enjoy hearing how an elusive jigsaw piece fits into the larger puzzle of a musical career. And, it is undoubtedly interesting for orchestral players, as it was for the KSO winds, who get to discover a boatload of charming exposed phrases and textures. In the Allegro section of the first movement, we get to hear the solo oboe, played by Phylis Secrist, against the orchestra, the similar feeling Tchaikovsky used next for his main theme in Swan Lake. And the Andante third movement was a feast for the bassoon (principal Darrel Hale) and horn (principal Jeffery Whaley).

The title of the concert, though, was Romance of the Violin, for the presence on the opening half of the concert of James Newton Howard’s A Village Romance and Pablo de Sarasate’s virtuosic showpiece Carmen Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra. The guest violinist for the evening was William Hagen.

Sarasate, a Spanish virtuoso violinist whose technique and reputed purity of tone made him a big concert draw over a four-decade career that began in 1860, was also a composer of works for violin and orchestra, which he used as showcases for his own technique in performance. Many of these also feature Spanish flavor and passion, which is certainly the case in the Carmen Fantasy, based on themes from Bizet’s opera.

This performance was a brilliant introduction to the 20-year-old Hagen, who is undoubtedly at the beginning of a significant career. Although he handled the multitude of entertaining virtuosic tricks and techniques with apparent perfection, it was the depth of presentation, with just the right touch of Carmen passion, that sold the piece—and indicated a musician with a musical maturity far beyond his years. Let me cast my vote now for bringing Hagen back to Knoxville in the near future for a second look and listen, but in something with a little more substance.

A Village Romance—a concert suite of thematic material written by James Newton Howard for the M. Night Shyamalan film The Village—was less successful. The lack of impressiveness was not due to anything that Hagen or the orchestra did, or didn’t do, but the work and its subtle cinematic evocativeness, when forced into abstraction, was simply swallowed in the expanse of the hall. I have no doubt that A Village Romance would be much more meaningful in a smaller venue with a smaller ensemble.

Maestro Lucas Richman opened the evening with Antonin Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, the second of three overtures the composer had intended to be performed together as a cycle. Dvorak later lost interest in that idea and the works were published separately, with Carnival Overture becoming one of his most popular works. Had anyone in the audience toyed with the idea of nodding off until the guest soloist appeared, Richman’s energetic and brassy approach to the curtain-raising piece certainly illustrated why the word “carnival” was in the title.

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