Saturday night in Oak Ridge, a double string quartet was doing its best to go about the routines of daily life while gunshots rang out in the percussion and the rest of the orchestra seemed to be teetering on chaos.
At least, that’s what it seemed like in the opening movement of Lucas Richman’s “Symphony: This Will Be Our Reply,” completed this year and receiving its world premiere in the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra & Chorus’ performance at the Oak Ridge Performing Arts Center at Oak Ridge High School. The title comes from a speech by Leonard Bernstein about how artists can and should respond to the violence in the world.
The first movement, titled “Intensity,” is about finding music and beauty in the face of a world on the brink of coming apart. The ominous opening moments in the percussion, winds and brass were the sounds of violence and disorder, out of which emerged peaceful chamber music in the form of a double quartet: two each of first violins, second violins, violas and cellos – the innermost ring of the string sections of the orchestra.
Gradually, the chamber music won converts in the rest of the orchestra as instrument sections joined in the quartet’s theme. By the end of the movement the chamber unit had won the battle as a lovely harmony developed. As music, it is a brilliant concept, and it was carried out well by the Oak Ridge Symphony, one of the three orchestras in the consortium that commissioned the piece.
Having won the battle for peace and beauty, the orchestra eased into the second movement, marked “Beauty.” It was one of the most exquisite pieces of music I have ever heard. It began with a solo clarinet, with a quiet underpinning in the low strings. There was gorgeous playing by the oboe, horn, clarinet and English horn. A high-pitched bell sounded; then came the resonance of a Tibetan singing bowl at calming intervals. The flute and harp played a sweet duet. The collective sound was comforting, moving and intensely emotional, like a prayer one whispers to oneself.
The third movement, “Devotion,” sung by the Oak Ridge Chorus joining the orchestra, was the “Va’anachnu” text from the Jewish liturgy, combined with a “Tikkum Olam” text written by Richman. “But we bend our knees and bow down and express thanks before the King, King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.” It continued with a declaration of what can be done in the face of violence.
This is, without doubt, Richman’s finest work to date. It brought me to tears. It is destined to own a place in the repertoire.
The balance of the concert was Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3 in E Flat,” Op. 55, known as the “Eroica Symphony.” I can’t imagine any other piece of music that could more fittingly follow Richman’s wonderful, astonishingly beautiful music.
The “Eroica” was a revolution in music itself. Nothing like it had ever been heard before.
For the most part, the orchestra played it well. There were missed notes here and there, but the message of the music came through.
Congratulations to Oak Ridge Civic Music Association music director and conductor Dan Allcott and chorus director Jaclyn Johnson for the fine preparation and execution of Richman’s superb symphony. Getting a new work of music into one’s head is only the beginning of the process. Performing it as well as it was performed in Oak Ridge Saturday night is a significant achievement.
Most of all, congratulations to composer Richman, former music director of the Knoxville Symphony. I think everyone present felt the special nature of this music.
Information about ORCMA’s upcoming concerts and events can be found here.