BY ALAN SHERROD
Jo say there was an air of excitement during last weekend’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concerts at the Tennessee Theater would be an understatement. The occasion was the world premiere of Michael Schachter’s Violin Concerto: The circle of life, a work specifically inspired in both name and program by Richard Jolley’s monumental work in glass and metal that has drawn viewers to the Knoxville Museum of Art since 2014. The concerto, commissioned by the KSO with the support of a significant number of interested individuals and organisations, had originally been intended for performances two years ago when live performances were canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the weekend’s air of excitement encompassed not only those who were interested in hearing and judging a new piece of music, but also those who had contributed financially to the effort and enjoyed the feeling of participation. Excitement also came from the second half of the program and its stark contrast in style, intention and substance – an absolutely phenomenal and memorable ensemble rendition by the orchestra of Symphony No. 2 in E minor from Rachmaninoff.
The presentation of new musical works, although essential in the long term for the future existence of symphony orchestras, traditionally involved a risk. Even in the biggest markets, one need only look at box office receipts and empty seats to understand that challenging audiences with contemporary works by living composers often comes at a price. KSO music director Aram Demirjian has taken a wise course in this regard by gradually introducing shorter contemporary works into the programs, as well as including works by minority and underrated female composers who belong to the pages of the history of music. However, at symphony length, Schachter’s seven-movement concerto represents a bold statement for the orchestra and an opportunity for its audience, a milestone that means much more than just a new score performed.
Given that Schachter’s work had a quasi-programmatic structure derived from the specifics of the Jolley sculpture, it was not surprising that an accompanying video projection was also created. Projected onto a large screen behind the orchestra, the blissfully soft visuals by Doug Griffey of Loch and Key Productions referenced elements of the Jolley installation and acted as a roadmap of sorts. Of course, this begs the question: does music need a roadmap? Such visual support can also be a distraction and lead viewers/listeners to mental images and conclusions that may not be intended by the music. The visuals accompanying the music are most likely a third entity, something we enjoy in film and TV storytelling, but a distraction in the concert hall that often vies with the composer for focus and attention.
That said, Schachter’s concerto is a large, complex and impressive work of conversation between the violinist—beautifully rendered here with thrilling virtuosity by violinist Tessa Lark—and the orchestra conducted by Maestro Demirjian. Throughout the seven movements, one felt an analog push and pull of emotions created by musical textures and tones that ran the gamut from dissonant angles and twisted pitches to eerily comfortable American music textural references such as bluegrass and folk rhythms.
The movements – titled ‘Primordial’, ‘Emergence’, ‘Flight’, ‘Desire’, ‘Tree of Life’, ‘Contemplation’ and ‘Sky’ – represent an arc that carries the listener away. Lark, who had been sitting quietly in the violin section of the orchestra from the start, “emerges” in the second movement, slowly moving to center stage, also slowly gaining a foothold musically. The third movement, “Flight”, soars with an energy and movement that pushes upwards. The fourth movement, “Desire,” was undeniably memorable for its textures and colors of harp and flute (alto flute beautifully played by Jill Bartine), as well as an engaging repartee between soloist and cello (Andy Bryenton) in a rather magic that naturally ends in consumption. The sixth movement “Contemplation” was a cadenza of a beautiful tonal frenzy. The final movement “Sky” does not end with a flash and a bang, but with the soloist inevitably accepting the premise of a “life cycle” and returning to where she came from.
Although I heard both performances of Schachter’s concerto, I could easily have wished for half a dozen more. It’s a beautiful piece of work with layer upon layer of intriguing moments that appear and then disappear fleetingly, much like the cycle of life itself. Lark’s performance with Demirjian and the orchestra was simply breathtaking.
As mentioned, the second half of the evening’s program, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, offered a stark contrast to Schachter’s concerto, but which was beautifully done and suggested a new dimension of interpretation for the orchestra. . Rachmaninoff has been called the last of the composers of the Romantic era, one who stubbornly navigated between traditional 19th-century Romanticism and the growing forces of 20th-century modernity. Its hour-long run and breathtaking lyricism injected with almost continual melodic introductions carry the danger of becoming a musical sprawl. But Demirjian obviously knew the pitfalls and painted the symphony with dynamic variations that were not only refreshing, but intensely satisfying. The orchestra also adhered to the maestro’s premise and played with an ensemble precision that was perhaps the season’s finest display.
The KSO (Concertmaster William Shaub) strings shone brightly in this Rachmaninoff treasure chest that handled the lyricism with a radiant luxuriance shining with brilliance and warm with solidity and richness in its depth. That the orchestra could maintain this high level of focus over the length of the work, weaving through one melodic treatment after another with clarity and precision, was all the more impressive.
Admittedly, the opening movement which begins with a dark Largo which moves in an expanse allegro, seems to go on forever. However, the beauty of this performance was that we no longer cared about the length because everything made sense. The third Adagio movement brought the melancholy melodic theme for the solo clarinet, played here with persuasive and poignant beauty by KSO Principal Clarinetist Gary Sperl. Demirjian set up the finale nicely, teasing with volume, but allowing a somewhat restrained effervescence to carry the ending.
It was a pleasure to hear an evening of the two works, radically different from each other in their subject and direction. Congratulations to Demirjian and the orchestra for aiming high and making it an outstanding musical evening.