Big Ears – physically draining, soul satisfying

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

There comes a point at Big Ears festivals when one has the sense that the tank is empty and full at the same time. Reserve levels are bottoming out, so the energy to get to concerts and maintain concentration is eking down to fumes. But that’s overpowered by the emotional, intellectual and spiritual need to have soul-satisfying experiences that occur only at Big Ears and isn’t even close to saturation level yet.

Exhaustion and exhilaration in an arm-wrestling contest.

One of the reasons so many great musicians want to come here for Big Ears is the chance to do exactly what they want with whomever they want to play, to an audience that eagerly comes to listen intently to whatever they do, because both musicians and listeners know this is the only place they will all share a most unique experience. It’s why people come from around the world.

Banjo genius Béla Fleck and harpist Edmar Castañeda’s concert at crammed-full St. John’s Cathedral at noon Friday was one of those experiences. The acoustics at St. John’s were perfect for the sonorities of the two instruments.

Another one was the performance of British cellist Peter Gregson with five local cellists: Andy Bryenton, Ted Kartal, Stacy Nickell, D. Scot Williams and Stacy’s daughter, Cecilia Miller, at the Tennessee Theatre Friday evening. They played Gregson’s re-composition of J.S. Bach’s “Six Solo Suites for Cello.” Unfortunately, due to scheduling crunches, they had to stop before finishing the Sixth’s set of movements.

Add to the “unique list” British songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson’s “Killed in Action,” performed with the Knoxville Symphony Strings at the Bijou Theatre on Sunday afternoon. Written in commemoration of World War I’s centenary, it explored the personal anguish and suffering of war.

String quartet Brooklyn Rider and Kayhan Kalhor. From left: violist Nichola Cord, cellist Michael Nicolas, Iranian kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, unidentified drummer, violinists Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman.

Early Sunday evening Iranian master Kayhan Kalhor, one of the world’s greatest musicians, who plays the unique four-string kamancheh, played with Brooklyn Rider, the brilliant American string quartet, at a standing-room-only concert at the Bijou Theatre. They played music from their joint recording “Silent City” and improvised pieces just for the joy of it.

As satisfying as these concerts were, the most fulfilling may have been the performance at St. John’s Cathedral of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s 1982 “Passio,” about Pontius Pilate asking the crowd to choose whom they wanted to see freed for the Passover Feast in Jerusalem, Jesus or Barabbas.

Performed by the St. John’s Cathedral Choir, under the direction of Jason Overall, with bass-baritone Daniel Johnson-Webb majestically singing the role of Jesus; tenor William Brimer as Pilate; and the evangelist quartet of soprano Gail Broxson, alto Tracy Doty Ward, tenor Gary Smith and bass Perry Ward, it was nothing short of magnificent – on par with the best of the festival.

Pärt’s music explores the lingering sound quality of bells, called tintinnabulation. He scored “Passio” for only five instrumentalists, which in this performance were Sean Claire, violin; Claire Chenette, oboe; D. Scot Williams, cello; Aaron Apaza, bassoon; and Eunjin Choi, organ, used in this case as a single-voice instrument.

Pärt’s music is filled with glorious, often chilling harmonies and many wonderful moments, such as a soprano and alto duet, accompanied only by the cello in almost dissonant closeness. Or bass and alto accompanied by violin, or bassoon.

But Pärt’s sense of humor, as well as his intense spiritual devotion, came through in casting the role of Jesus as a booming bass-baritone instead of the usual tenor voice. In doing so, Pärt gave the real authority to Jesus, not Pilate.

Information for joining the Big Ears mailing list to learn about next year’s festival as it develops and see the press coverage from around the world of this year’s festival can be found here.

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