Humor and weirdness open Chamber Classics Series

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

The Knoxville Symphony Chamber Classics opens its concert season at 2:30 Sunday afternoon, Oct. 1, with a not-so-classic program that features toy instruments and unconventional contraptions turned into music-makers, in Austrian composer Heinz Carl Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!, a pan-demonium for baritone chansonnier and ensemble after children’s rhymes.”

It’s a funny piece, with odd noises that accompany spoken word and sung verse by a narrator, and a chansonnier, joining the orchestra, the musicians of which plays their instrument and talk-sings of Frankenstein and other demons he encounters.

As goofy as all that sounds, Gruber’s “Frankenstein” is a highly respected work that has been regularly performed around the world, including by the great orchestras, since its premiere in 1978. It put Gruber on the international music map.

“This is a tasty, perhaps even mischievous programming choice that audience members can take a bit out of,” said KSO music director, Aram Demirjian, discussing the program.

“I love those unexpected moments that you can only really get in live performance,” Demirjian said. “Symphonic music is so grounded in tradition that there is a misconception that you know what you’re going to get before you walk in the door, both among longtime and first-time audience members.

“Sometimes that sense of consistency can be a positive thing, but I think one of the most important aspects of live performance is that it has the capacity to surprise.”

Humor and satire aren’t usually overriding themes one finds at classical music concerts. And it’s often true that classical music can take itself too seriously, making it difficult for concert newcomers to feel they are part of what goes on.

Something as simple as when one applauds, or risks condemnation and scowls from surrounding people, is an intuitive sensibility that goes with listening to music performance.

The etiquette of not applauding when the music stops is a new phenomenon in the history of classical music, although it has been the norm for a 100 years. Nevertheless, there are plentiful classical music that undeniably demands applause at the end of powerful first movements.

In that context, humor and satire are not easy fits. “The whole program is about humor and satire,” Demirjian said. “Haydn was a composer who believed it was okay to laugh and guffaw out loud during a performance.”

Haydn’s “Symphony No. 60 in C Major,” Hob: 1:60, opens Sunday’s concert. It was conceived as incidental music to the Italian play “Il Distratto,” the distractd one, that was staged at the Esterhazy palace in 1784 when Haydn was the court’s composer and principal musician.

“It’s chocked full of musical jokes, including one moment when the music is supposed to grind to a halt so that the orchestra has to re-tune,” Demirjian said. In the middle of the concert is Prokofiev’s “Symphony No. 1 in D Major,” Op. 25, called the “Classical Symphony.”

“It’s simultaneously an homage to Haydn and the 20th century parody of a Haydn symphony,” Demirjian said. “It’s Haydn, heavily caffeinated.”

Baritone Scott Bearden performs the role of the chansonnier in Gruber’s “Frankenstein.” This is his first performance with the Knoxville Symphony. But he is well-known to Knoxville Opera audiences, having sung in “Maria Stuarda,” “Tosca,” and “Hansel and Gretel.” Bearden will also be heard in Knoxville Opera’s 40th anniversary gala concert and in next spring’s KO production of Verdi’s “Aida.

He and his wife are now Knoxvillians.

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