“Where words fail, music speaks” was Maestro Lucas Richman’s simple introduction to the encore selection—the poignant and wistful Variation IX (“Nimrod”) from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations—on his final concert as music director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra last weekend. While that quote from Hans Christian Andersen is often used a bit too generically, its tearfully succinct use on this occasion was befitting the moment. It followed round after round of tumultuous applause and ovation for Richman and the orchestra—a demonstration of appreciation for his 12 seasons of accomplishments that rendered any more words quite meaningless, and probably, impossible.
However, with symbolic tears dried and composure regained, words inevitably must be used to describe this KSO season-finale concert of four works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Ravel. “Eclectic” is an apt description, a word Richman himself used in his introduction to the evening, perhaps fearful that the audience might find the program too unconnected. He shouldn’t have worried. In fact, “refreshingly eclectic” is even more to the point in describing the stylistic leap from Beethoven’s Egmont Overture to Ravel’s La Valse, not to mention the vivid contrast of the familiar Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Adagio movement from Gustav Mahler’s uncompleted 10th Symphony.
Inevitably, a music director’s final concert cannot escape the responsibility of being a summation of sorts, although in this case it was an entirely positive one. One highlight of Richman’s time with KSO has been the selection and arrival of Gabriel Lefkowitz, who is now completing his fourth season as KSO concertmaster. In addition to the leadership and the youthful and charismatic face that Lefkowitz has brought to the orchestra, the violinist possesses a depth of virtuosic ability that far exceeds what one expects in a concertmaster, a fact made perfectly clear with a stunning performance as soloist in the Tchaikovsky concerto.
The concerto’s opening Allegro moderato movement is one of ebb and flow, contrasts of motion, in which Lefkowitz articulated both the broad lyrical statements and the rapid-fire details with intricate clarity—bright and bold one moment, warm and complex the next. Lefkowitz’s take on the movement’s gorgeous cadenza was both intelligent and passionate, so much so that when the orchestra overlaps the violin’s closing note with a statement of delicate gentleness, the resolution was nothing short of exhilarating. After the movement’s dramatic conclusion, Friday night’s audience would not be denied their say despite the work being only half over, with many leaping to their feet for an extended ovation for Lefkowitz’s sensational performance. While Richman gave the violin all the space it needed, he also made sure that Tchaikovsky’s entertaining orchestral moments got their due, from the bold theme pronouncement of brass and strings in the opening to the intriguing questions and answers from the woodwinds.
The Mahler Adagio, the only movement from his 10th Symphony that was completed at the composer’s death, took the orchestra in an entirely different direction. On Friday evening’s concert, the viola section opening was solid yet mysterious and rich, opening the way for the movement’s textural clashes between brass and strings. Moments of 20th-century melodic and harmonic complexity are burnished by luscious stretches of 19th-century lyricism—contrasts and combinations that dive in and out of focus, almost cinematically.
The evening concluded with Maurice Ravel’s 1920 La Valse, a work that richly evokes images of waltzes, ballrooms, and swirling dancers. However, this is not a neatly focused theatrical or cinematic view of dance, but one as spied surreptitiously through a hazy, distorted window—sometimes clear, but more often beautifully twisted or misshapen.
The work was a feast for the KSO percussionists, from triangle and orchestral bells to castanets and tambourines, with cymbals, bass, and snare drum in between. In fact, the expanded instrumentation also included two harps, bass clarinet, tuba, and extra woodwinds, which allowed the rhythmic complexity and the textural depth of La Valse to be the perfect instrumental showcase for the orchestra to end a season.
While Richman’s KSO legacy has been the topic of late, we need not have waited until now to show thanks. Each of the last several seasons have witnessed some hard decisions and aesthetic choices on his part that have allowed KSO to advance rapidly through impressive performance milestones and achieve its current notable reputation among American orchestras. For that, Knoxville music audiences should be eternally grateful.
~ Alan Sherrod
May 19, 2015