There were a number of firsts for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and their Masterworks concerts last weekend—some matter of fact, some exciting, while others were, well, unfortunate. Among the latter was Friday’s first-of-the-season ice storm, which reduced that night’s attendance by at least half, to a relative handful of dedicated concertgoers.
On the happier side of things, Toshiyuki Shimada, the first guest conductor of this season for KSO, was making his first-ever appearance with the orchestra, tackling a challenging program of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Schumann. The performance of the Beethoven work itself, the Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” was the first from the KSO that I had heard. These performances of the “Emperor” were also the first for KSO’s guest pianist, Gleb Ivanov—one of those first times we are likely to remember fondly.
Ivanov’s physical stature—a substantial height and solid build—imply a pianist capable of overwhelming power. While the power is there, it is skillfully controlled and, surprisingly, is matched by a genuine and intelligent sensitivity and an emotional delicacy of tone.
What the “Emperor” requires from pianists, though, is more than mastery of runs, multiple voices, and beautiful tone; it requires an understanding, an overview, a plan, that guides both the details and broad passages from beginning to end, lest one become bogged down in Beethoven’s obstacles of structure. In this, Ivanov was miraculously successful and courageous, apparently unafraid to contrast moments of plainness and rigidity with moments of Romantic lusciousness.
In the opening movement, Ivanov’s attention to the sudden dynamic and tempo changes pushed and pulled at one’s emotions, tugging the listener from turmoil to tranquility. The second, adagio movement, one of the most achingly beautiful slow movements in the concerto repertoire, and the transition to the Finale, revealed perhaps the one technical problem of the performance: a bit of communication difficulty between Shimada and the soloist in which coordination was momentarily frayed at the edges. However, these issues paled in comparison to the total effect of the performance, which was eye-opening and deeply rewarding.
Shimada and the orchestra returned from intermission to take on Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in E-flat), a work that saw its first performance in Düsseldorf in 1851. Although Schumann stated that his intention was to mirror something of life along the Rhine, any such impressions are mostly invisible to modern audiences, and probably were to a majority of 19th-century listeners as well. Following the Beethoven concerto as it did, the symphony reveals Schumann’s emotional foundation, which he built on with his own innate—and sometimes tortured—creativity.
Some music writers through the years have gently questioned Schumann’s abilities as an orchestrator. Gustav Mahler himself, while conductor of the New York Philharmonic, performed the second and third symphonies, but in his own altered versions, which featured simplifications to the instrumentation and changes to dynamics. Shimada accomplished much of the same effect, it seemed, maintaining the fertile flow of musical ideas by carefully massaging dynamics to balance textures of one section against another. Tiny tempo changes did not escape his view, either, although his precise cuing was something of two-edged sword. Nevertheless, the attention to the crispness of entrances, particularly among the string sections, delivered a supremely confident tone.
Shimada began the evening with a wonderful curtain-raiser: Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise, which opens Act III of his opera Eugene Onegin. Above all, Tchaikovsky excels at textures and impressions created from specific instrument combinations; Shimada was careful to wring every bit of delight and fun from them. The retort of majestic horns against the strings was nicely accentuated, as was a similar section of horns answering the tea-house textures of flutes and oboes. And, of course, the elation of Tchaikovsky’s strings swept us away, momentarily at least, to a place of grandeur—melting, if only briefly, January’s ice.