If Thursday night’s opening concert of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s 82nd season was any indication, the Aram Demirjian era as conductor and music director of the KSO is off to a sensitive, well-articulated start.
Not everything went perfectly. But if the collective music of the evening was meant to express the character of Knoxville, we are a gentle, polite, upbeat, gracious city, capable of delight and boisterousness, but also a community that allows it citizens to live lives according to their means, with equal respect and dignity.
Overall, that was the sensibility of the world premiere of young composer, Michael Schachter’s “Overture to Knoxville,” commissioned by the KSO for the occasion. Somewhat a musical portrait of the city’s past, present and future, according to the program notes written by the composer to describe his music. Nevertheless, there wasn’t a hint of either the mountain music heritage that produced both bluegrass or country music, or the ubiquitous “Rocky Top.”
It’s moments of loud enthusiasm were punctuated by members of the brass section of the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra scattered around the auditorium. Those contrasted with soft, quiet, beautiful passages, as lovely as a light breeze blowing along the shores of the Tennessee River passing through town.
The heart of the concert was two works based on the writing of Knoxville native James Agee, Samuel Barber’s gorgeous “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Op. 24, and Aaron Copland’s “Orchestral Suite from ‘The Tender Land’.”
Composed in 1947 and revised in 1950, the text of “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” comes from Agee’s autobiographical prose-poem that Barber saw in “The Partisan Review.” Agee later incorporated the writing into his book “A Death in the Family” that Agee began in 1948.
An introductory portion of the text of “Knoxville” was beautifully read by Knoxville poet Laureate, R. B. Morris, before Barber’s music began, although there was soulful music in Morris’ delivery.
It was a good thing the reading set the tone for the performance, because, except the word “Porch” very little of what soprano Joelle Harvey sang could be understood.
Harvey has a beautiful, delicate, lyric voice that suited Barber’s light, luminous orchestration. It was just that clear enunciation was almost completely absent, as well as, at moments, her voice disappeared into the orchestral texture. Had I not had Dawn Upshaw’s magnificent recording of “Knoxville” playing in my head, I would have missed the story of a little boy at an important moment in the life of his family.
Morris read Agee again before the beginning of the suite from Copland’s opera, this time from “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Agee’s joint book with photographer Walker Evans. An especially touching moment was Morris’ concluding with a cappella singing of a portion of Jim Reeves 1962 “This World is Not My Home.”
Copland’s “The Tender Land” opera was inspired, in part, by the Agee-Evans book. It’s the story of a young love affair set on a Midwestern farm during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Joining the orchestra in the third movement was Carson-Newman University’s A Cappella Choir.
The second half of the concert was Sergei Rachmaninoff”s 1940 “Symphonic Dances,” Op. 45, in a performance by Demirjian that showcased why the KSO chose him as its new music director.
It was nothing short of a gorgeous, understated, execution of clean silences, crisp phrases and captivating dynamics. Overall tour de force conducting by Demirjian.
There was also wonderful playing by many of the musicians in the orchestra, especially principal horn Jeffery Whaley and the rest of the horn section. There were lovely lines that principal English horn, Ayca Yayman, began and principal oboe, Claire Chenette, finished, as well as a singing violin solo by new concertmaster William Shaub.
Considering that this concert was the first performance since the KSO came back together after a summer off, it was an auspicious start to the season.