music2 (2007-40)

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The KSO & UT Symphony Orchestra

by Alan Sherrod

What makes the music of American symphonic composers characteristically â“American?â” Is it rebellion from European traditions? Is it inclusion of American themes? Is it adoption of singularly American musical genres, or is it geography? Concertgoers had two opportunities to explore those questions last week.

On Thursday and Friday, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra opened its 2007/2008 season with a program titled â“American Mastersâ” at the Tennessee Theatre. Maestro Lucas Richman selected four works from American composers covering a range from minimalist expressionism to true American impressionism.

The program began with the four-minute â“Short Ride in a Fast Machineâ” by contemporary composer John Adams. In this work, the gears of the orchestra are shifted, its engine revved complete with knocks and pings, and riders are alternately terrified and exhilarated. Perhaps I am alone in using the word â“expressionismâ” to describe this piece, but it certainly contrasts with the impressionistic â“Pacific 231â” of French composer Arthur Honegger, although both draw from similar themes of movement.

The featured soloist for the evening was pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who came with the piece commissioned for him, Lowell Liebermannâ’s â“Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 95,â” which premiered just last year. The KSO was one of a group of 18 orchestras that commissioned the work.

The concerto, in three movements, â“Risoluto,â” â“Largo,â” and â“Burlesque,â” reminded this reviewer of a magician pulling a sequence of dissimilar objects from a box. What reaches the ears are waves of changing orchestral colors and tonalities, some unexpected, some profound, some whimsical. Mr. Biegel, visibly and assuredly comfortable with the concerto, had strength and balance for the profound, and softness and restraint for the whimsical. For an encore, Mr. Biegel delighted the audience with his high-speed athleticism in â“Rush Hour in Hong Kongâ” by Abram Chasins.

The second half of the concert consisted of two works that are inseparable from the American consciousness due to their popular use in every kind of contemporary media. Maestro Richman opened the second half with Aaron Coplandâ’s â“Appalachian Spring Suite,â” arranged from the ballet music created for choreographer Martha Graham. Over time, this piece has come to represent how we yearn to see America: a vast openness that is clean, neat, simple, and straightforward. Maestro Richman avoided the trap that lesser orchestras fall into, that of using a glacial tempo instead of a simple, precise sweetness; he maintained that simple sweetness without losing Coplandâ’s solidity.

The concert concluded with George Gershwinâ’s â“An American in Parisâ” from 1928. Although the work is impressionistic in the extreme, Richman carefully refrained from filling the exuberant sections with overdone theatrical crescendos and tempo alterations. The KSO showed us that â“An American in Parisâ” is the serious American concert piece it deserves to be.

American music continued on Sunday afternoon with â“Made in America,â” a concert by the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra in the Cox Auditorium on the UT Campus. Conductor James Fellenbaum selected four works from three American composers, â“Overture to Candideâ” by Leonard Bernstein, Lowell Libermannâ’s â“Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Op. 39â”, and Aaron Coplandâ’s â“El Salon Méxicoâ” and the â“Hoedown from Rodeo.â” Faculty member Shelly Binder was the flute soloist in the Liebermann.

Perhaps as an exclamation point on that accomplishment, Mr. Fellenbaum started the final work, Coplandâ’s Hoedown, then left the stage leaving the orchestra to work as an ensemble without a conductor. The result, no doubt an educational exercise, was both a technical and artistic success. Over the last few years, the improvements in this orchestra are nothing short of phenomenal.



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