KSO, Lecce-Chong and Michelle Cann take ‘Rach’ to new heights – Arts Knoxville
BY ALAN SHERROD
JWhat are the elements of a successful symphony orchestra season? Most would agree that there must be challenges for both the orchestra and the audience in the programming for the season. This programming must have drama, intrigue and surprises. The orchestra must play with impressive skill, focus and energy, led by a conductor who exudes confidence and possesses fresh insights. And, with conductors able to turn their moments on display into something magical, it’s certainly important to have guest soloists who can delight and entertain, even overwhelm listeners. As the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra put on their second pair of Masterworks gigs of the season last weekend, they clearly ticked a number of those boxes.
With Maestro Aram Demirjian absent for a guest concert with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra this weekend, the place of conductor with the KSO went to Francesco Lecce-Chong, who is the musical director of the Eugene Symphony in Oregon and the Santa Rosa Symphony Orchestra in Northern California. Its program of works by Beethoven, Paul Hindemith and Sergei Rachmaninoff covered a substantial amount of stylistic territory, but was managed by the conductor with dramatic balance and careful sculpting as he engaged the orchestra and audience. , tapping into a satisfying cache of musical emotion. .
Lecce-Chong started with Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 3, one of Beethoven’s three abandoned efforts to find the appropriate overture for his opera Leonorethe work that eventually became the opera Fidelio. Beginning with the ominous descending scale of the overture and continuing throughout, Lecce-Chong made the contrasts of texture and dynamics look solid and dramatic, making it clear why Beethoven could not use this work as an operatic overture – it is all symphonic in nature and intent, practically a symphonic poem in its complexity. The offstage trumpet passages were given a solidly haunting twist by Brian Winegardner from behind the Tennessee Theater balcony. Principal flute Devan Jaquez added character to the beautiful flute passages.
As I stated in my preview article, I believe this was the KSO’s first performance of Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis de Maler. Although interpretations of Hindemith’s music have suffered a general decline over the past 50 years, it is not a work tossed to any orchestra, its complexity and depth are so daunting. Thus, his appearance on the KSO stage speaks volumes about the orchestra’s abilities.
For a time in the 1930s, Paul Hindemith was successful as an artist in opposing Nazi-era acts. his opera, Mathis de Maler, was based on the 16th century painter Matthias Grünewald, but with the modified intention of revealing what life was like for artists under politically oppressive regimes. When premiering the opera, Hindemith worked out sections by creating a three-movement symphony at Wilhelm Furtwängler’s request, the movements corresponding to the three panels in Grünewald’s painting of the Issenheim Altarpiece. Eventually performances of the opera were banned and Hindemith was forced to flee Nazi Germany, emigrating to Switzerland and the United States.
Maestro Lecce-Chong approached the symphony with obvious boldness and confidence, providing weight and density where needed and responsiveness to mood swings. The second movement, “Entombment,” featured beautiful solo moments from flautist Jaquez and principal oboe Claire Chenette. The last movement, “La Tentation de Saint Antoine”, evolved from anxiety to optimism, aided in its hopeful aim by a bold ensemble playing brass sections from the KSO.
Fortunately, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was the last on the program, as it would have been impossible to follow, thanks to a sensational interpretation by pianist Michelle Cann. Listeners who remember his previous engagement with the KSO had an idea of the new exuberance that awaited them. Bold, thunderous statements were soothed by charming delicacy as Cann painted romance as anything but sappy. In the Adagio, Cann never left textural storytelling, even in those moments that are all too melodically familiar. Solo horn Jeffery Whaley’s solo passage in this movement was luminous.
Rachmaninoff gave the orchestra a prominent role in this concerto, allowing for balance with the piano by offering alternative textures – soft versus bold, forceful versus subtle piano, with a rich string sound providing a burnished backdrop of romanticism. The combination in the Adagio was lush and remarkably fresh. The finale was, as expected, a melodic shuffle that gains density and speed, insisting the audience stand up at the end.
As if there was only one left to dazzlingly impress, Cann offered an encore that held a sly attachment to Rachmaninoff – Hazel Scott’s jazzy, energetic transcription of Rachmaninoff’s familiar prelude in C sharp minor. Needless to say, additional ovations were in order.