Lucas Richman Begins His Next-to-Last Season at KSO With a Triumphant Opening Concert

With the official announcement last week that music director and conductor Lucas Richman would be leaving the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra after the 2014-15 season, one naturally had to reflect on what might be in store for the orchestra and audiences over the next two years and beyond. Fortunately, it only took a handful of measures in last weekend’s opening concert to propose, and for the evening’s works to confirm, that Richman’s KSO legacy will be the quantum leap in technical achievement made by the orchestra over his tenure—an achievement that verges on the phenomenal.

The opening work on the concert, Emil von Reznicek’s Overture to Donna Diana, was brisk, happy, and crisply articulated, from the scale-like opening measures to the satisfying pah-pah-pah conclusion—the perfect upbeat opener. However, it was the bella donna headliners—the all-female Eroica Trio, performing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto—that was the draw for the evening. To their credit, the trio (violinist Sara Parkins, cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio, and pianist Erika Nickrenz) has changed the face of chamber-ensemble performances with their friendly, unstuffy images and fresh, distinctive performances.

Although the trio has an expansive repertoire of ensemble material, their publicity material points out that they perform the Beethoven Triple Concerto more frequently than any other trio in the world. This is doubtlessly true. While their take on the concerto sheds the layers of ponderousness that have crept into Beethoven interpretations over 200 years, their approach to the work could have used a bit more weight and depth, and a little less delicacy. A bit precarious, too, was the visual presentation, with Nickrenz’s piano bench sitting on shaky-looking extenders and Sant’Ambrogio’s cello platform looking a bit dinged and scuffed—admittedly subconscious distractions. Nevertheless, the largo second movement, which features an extended ensemble solo section, was deliciously successful.

The highlight of the evening for the orchestra, though, was Zoltan Kodály’s Háry János Suite on the second half of the program. The composition consists of six movements drawn from the composer’s 1926 Hungarian folk opera and relates the tall tales told somewhat boastfully by the title hero in his village inn. Richman’s approach was somewhat heroic as well, superbly confident with nicely balanced orchestral color, crisply contrasting the lyrical with the bright. The KSO percussion section had plenty to do, especially since the work is an occasion for the cimbalom, a concert hammered dulcimer popularized in Hungarian ethnic music. The guest cimbalom player was Christopher Deane.

While the familiar happy clangor of the “Viennese Musical Clock” movement was invigorating, equally well done were the moments of the composer’s gentle lyricism, such as the lovely viola solo performed by principal viola Kathryn Gawne in the third movement, “Song.”

Closing a concert with an overture may seem odd, but it really works if it is Richard Wagner’s Overture to Rienzi. Although Wagner’s early opera itself has fallen out of favor in contemporary circles, the popular overture is a clear example of the composer’s ability to manipulate emotions through the ebb and flow of thematic material. While the overture begins with simple, pensive notes from the trumpet (played with beautiful clarity and control by the KSO’s new principal, Phillip Chase Hawkins) and returns to them throughout, the work’s brassy and uplifting finale is practically the definition of elation and optimism—emotions one can certainly feel for the KSO’s season and for the future.

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I doubt that one could find a more timely theme than the one that music director James Fellenbaum has chosen for the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra’s 2013-14 season—“Old Friends, New Beginnings.” Although each year is always a new beginning for the orchestra, this year has particular significance given the new image and new opportunities for the UT School of Music represented by the just-opened Haslam Music Center.

On the “old friends” side of the equation, a colleague and friend of Fellenbaum, Huw Edwards, will be the guest conductor for the opening concert this Sunday afternoon. Edwards is currently music director of the Olympia Symphony Orchestra in Washington and orchestra conductor at the University of Puget Sound.

Two of our old friends, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, are celebrating their 200th anniversaries this year, so Fellenbaum has chosen works by them to open the concert: Wagner’s rousing Prelude to Die Meistersinger and Verdi’s Triumphal March from Aida. With Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 chosen to conclude the concert, it’s clear Fellenbaum believes the orchestra’s abilities this season really are a substantial “new beginning.”

The concert is in the James R. Cox Auditorium of Alumni Memorial Building on Sunday, Sept. 29, at 4 p.m.

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