To the delight of the audience at the Tennessee Theatre Thursday night, after violinist Tessa Lark earned a standing ovation and roars of approval for her virtuosic performance of Czech-American Erich Korngold’s “Violin Concerto in D Major,” Op. 35, with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, she turned her classical violin into a bluegrass fiddle and sang a Kentucky bluegrass tune for her encore. She got as big a response.
The concert opened with American composer Rachel Grimes’ “Book of Leaves for Orchestra,” a warm, charming piece. The first movement, titled “My Dear Companion,” began with a delicately pulsing rhythm that had the quality of tree leaves moving in a light summer breeze accompanying an oboe solo gorgeously played by principal oboe Claire Chenette.
Quotes from the traditional Appalachian folk song “My Dear Companion” could be heard in various instruments as fragments of the tune moved around the orchestra.
The second movement, “The Corner Room,” was lushly scored but had a personal, more intimate feeling of contemplation and solitude.
The third movement, “Mossgrove,” again had the sense of leaves blowing in a breeze, captured by the flutes. It gradually turned into a return of the gently pulsing rhythm, but in a different form. Bird sounds could be heard in the percussion.
Then Lark came on stage with KSO music director and conductor Aram Demirjian to talk about the significance and history of the Korngold concerto before the performance began. She had an easygoing, warm personality that clearly came through when she began to play.
She also had the virtuosic skills for the technical fireworks in the first movement.
In the second movement “Largo,” her performance technique took on a beautiful singing quality that was warm and romantic, before the energy of the sprightly third movement brought the piece to a close.
Then she charmed the audience again with her singing.
The second half of the concert was all music of Antonín Dvorák. The excellent Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra, under the consummate directing of KSYO’s conductor James Fellenbaum, took the stage first. They gave a vigorous performance of Dvorák’s “Slavonic Dance in C Major,” Op. 46, No. 1. Their performance earned a well-deserved, solid response from the audience.
Selected members of the KSYO then combined with professional members of the KSO for the performance of Dvorák’s “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor,” Op. 95, known as “From the New World.”
Written in 1893, its musical material came from Dvorák’s collective memory of his three years in America as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America.
Always interested in the folk music of his native Bohemia, Dvorák had a keen ear for the native music of America, especially jazz and the American spirituals.
One could hear echoes of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” played in the flutes in the first movement.
In the second movement, the role of the music was reversed. The melody Dvorák wrote for the English horn, gorgeously, almost reverently, played by Elizabeth Telling, was adapted by Dvorák’s student, William Arms Fisher, for his spiritual “Goin’ Home.” It’s the English horn’s most prominent solo in all of classical music.
There were also beautiful solos played by flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead, subbing for principal Hannah Hammer, who is playing in the New York Philharmonic this week, and principal clarinet Gary Sperl.
Although Dvorák’s “New World” ends rather quietly, after the last of the sound settled into the balcony, shouts of “Bravo!” rang out in front of the thunderous applause.
The concert will be repeated at 7:30 tonight. Tickets may be purchased by calling the KSO box office at 865-291-3310, or online.