KSO Balances Drama and Dynamics in Grieg Masterworks Performance

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The opening of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor is straightforward enough—a timpani roll, an orchestral chord in A minor, and two and half measures of descending chords from the piano. Despite the simplicity, that opening is as iconic a theme as any in music, a bold sign post that is as ubiquitous and familiar as the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Yet no other piano concerto that comes to mind has seen the gamut of interpretative directions over time as the Grieg piece has—everything from classically austere to lushly hyper-romantic.

In a Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Masterworks program last weekend that included the Grieg concerto—as well as works by fellow Scandinavians Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen—guest pianist Andrew Staupe and conductor Lucas Richman traveled a middle route through the piece, one in which the pianist emphasized the dramatic side and took a bold, crisp, and exhilarating approach to dynamics. While some may have missed the usually plentiful rubato and other detailed nuances that translate into Romantic period tenderness and lushness, I found Staupe’s eye-opening take quite refreshing. However, it is worth remembering that the work was the product of the 25-year-old Grieg, still very much in the grasp of youthfulness and optimism—he was recently married and also in love with the beauty of his native land during the 1860s, when national pride was easily flavored by Romanticism. In that context, passionate license-taking in varying degrees is not unexpected or unwarranted.

The second Adagio movement was beautifully rendered by Staupe and Richman, with a bit more introspection and a bit more lusciousness of tone. The Allegro moderato finale passes through a number of entertaining themes, including one of Norwegian folk flavor. But it is the build of momentum throughout that Staupe brilliantly capitalized on, ending with a grand and exciting finale—one that pulls you out of your seat.

The second half of the concert featured the Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E-flat, a work that was created during the early months of World War I and had its first performance in 1915. Although the Finnish Sibelius deliberately avoided offering programmatic background to his symphonies and discouraged others from offering their own, the grim drama going on in Europe clearly had a subconscious effect on the tone and mood of this symphony, as did Finland’s own internal civil battles as the piece was being later revised.

It is this wide range of tone and mood that is so attractive to audiences—the textural richness, the expansive and soaring but relatively simple melodies, the forays into brief moments of dissonance and disharmony. Unfortunately, the vast landscape of moods can also lead to an unfocused performance, as it was in this case. While all the technical aspects and individual efforts were mostly in place, the performance as a whole drifted from mood to mood, from texture to texture, without a particularly solid grounding of musical purpose and definition.

Richman opened the concert with two works by Danish composer Carl Nielsen from his opera Maskarade: the Overture and “Dance of the Cockerels.” The latter was as cute and whimsical as one could hope for in a concert opener.

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Is it May already? It seems like only yesterday that the KSO’s Chamber Classics Series opened for the season, and now the final concert of the year is upon us. The series, though, has taken on even more significance this year, with some fabulous ensemble performances in the incredible acoustics of the Bijou Theatre. And the reduced lowest ticket price has made this opportunity totally accessible.

This final Chamber Classics Sunday afternoon concert features the charismatic KSO concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz in the solo violin role in three works, works that Lefkowitz humorously calls “thorny, demanding, and fiendish.”

“Sarasate’s Zigeurnerweisen ("Gypsy Airs") and Paganini’s La Campanella ("The Little Bell") are widely considered to be two of the most virtuosic show-stoppers in the violin repertoire,” Lefkowitz says. “And they were indeed written by two of the most supremely gifted violin virtuosi to have ever lived. So naturally, I decided to do them back to back.”

Lefkowitz will also perform Beethoven’s Romance in F, a work with a personal connection for the violinist—it was one of the first pieces of non-student repertoire that he performed in public, at a recital in Boston at the age of 11.

Conductor Lucas Richman will open the concert with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and follow with Beethoven’s Overture to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus.

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