Knoxville Symphony Orchestra: Knoxville Postcards
Aram Demirjian, conductor
R.B. Morris, narrator
Schachter: Overture to Knoxville (with UT Brass Ensemble)
Samuel Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (with soprano Joélle Harvey)
Aaron Copland: Suite from The Tender Land ( with Carson-Newman A Capella Choir)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
Thursday and Friday, September 21 and 22, Tennessee Theatre, 7:30 PM
If not for the indispensable Knoxville writer and raconteur, Jack Neely, and his Knoxville History Project, as well as the newspapers Neely has written for (Knoxville Mercury and Metro Pulse), our feelings for Knoxville’s past history would undoubtedly be quite different. For new residents and visitors, the city’s colorful past and its connections to the world often come as quite a shock when they are revealed in historic photos or in the Neely catalog of intriguing stories and vibrant explanations. Many lifelong residents are often equally amazed, but for the unfortunate reason that a post WWII Knoxville seemed embarrassed by its scruffy past and encouraged civic forgetfulness. Thankfully, those days of forgetfulness and embarrassment are gone as the city has embraced the benefits of its history as a launching pad for a remarkable physical and social revitalization.
One of those new residents apparently drawn into the pleasures of Knoxville’s past as a roadmap to the future is the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Aram Demirjian. Now in his second season with the KSO, Demirjian is opening the 2017-18 season with a pair of Masterworks Concerts entitled “Knoxville Postcards,” a program in which each work explores Knoxville connections. On that program is the quintessential work connected to Knoxville, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Demirjian has also programmed Aaron Copland’s Suite from The Tender Land, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.
“A program like this,” Demirjian explains, “is something I’ve had in mind ever since I learned I was going to be the music director in Knoxville. So much about the hiring of the KSO’s next music director was about the future, so much of what we’re experiencing in Knoxville is about the growth of the city taking its next step, going up to the next level of visibility on the national stage.”
“I also strongly believe that to know where you are going, you’ve got to know where you came from. So, a lot of this program is about the past—and the future. The old and the new.”
The “new” on the program will take the form of a KSO commissioned piece by American composer, Michael Schachter: Overture to Knoxville. Demirjian feels that Schachter’s ability to draw from original source material and morph it into something new would be ideal for bringing attention to the depth and breadth of Knoxville’s musical culture.
“Michael Schachter is one of the most talented musicians and one of the most fascinating people that I know. He is about to become a significant player on the American compositional stage. … He is among the best composers of any age, any nationality, that I have encountered at taking classical music styles and idioms and using them as source material in classical music style composition in an entirely non-superficial and highly substantial fashion.”
Demirjian describes the overture, which will feature the UT Brass Ensemble playing antiphonally from the balcony, as “an exciting, high energy concert overture that was designed to bring the spirit of the community into the concert hall… It has a fanfare like quality, but also moments of repose. It is a highly melodic piece.”
The concert will also feature Knoxville Poet Laureate R.B. Morris.
“I enjoy giving the audience windows into the music whenever I can,” says Demirjian, “by talking about the piece of music before. But I thought we’d go in a little bit of a different direction. R.B. will be there prior to the Barber doing narration from A Death in the Family. Before the Copland, he will be doing an excerpt from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
The centerpiece of the concert comes in Samuel Barber’s lyrical masterpiece, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a 1947 work for soprano and orchestra with text taken from a prose poem by James Agee. The poem became a preface to Agee’s posthumously published novel describing an early 20th Century Knoxville, A Death in the Family. The soprano will be Joélle Harvey.
For many Knoxville residents and transplants alike, it also comes as a surprise to learn of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s connection to Knoxville. The Russian-born pianist and composer performed his final concert in Knoxville on February 17, 1943; cutting his tour short, he died a month later at his home in Beverly Hills, CA. [See my article, “Rachmaninoff’s Last Performance” in Classical Journal]
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances has the distinction of not only being the last piece of music the composer wrote, but also the only work of his written entirely in the United States. Although composed in 1940 as a hopeful project with choreographer Michel Fokine who had recently created a ballet from the composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a collaboration never happened. At the same time, Rachmaninoff was feeling the conflict between his draw as a solo pianist and his perception of his irrelevancy as a composer. Symphonic Dances has, nonetheless, become a substantial favorite of orchestras and audiences.
It’s worth a reminder that Rachmaninoff’s final concert is memorialized with a statue in World’s Fair Park, a fact that originally came as a surprise to Demirjian, as it also does to many residents and visitors.
“I took another visit to the Rachmaninoff statue recently and was reminded that the epitaph on the piano is the “Dies Irae,” a melody he was obsessed with, particularly later on in life. The third movement of the Symphonic Dances has a loud and bombastic statement of the “Dies Irae,” but that melody is so interwoven into the entire third movement. It is so fascinating that by all these subtle devices, he prepares us for the end.”
Demirjian explained his inclusion of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances on the program: “When we talk about the history of American music, I think it is important that we include the Rachmaninoffs, the Stravinskys, the Schoenbergs in that narrative as much as we do the Coplands and the Barbers.”
“With Rachmaninoff, Copland, and Barber, you have three composers who wrote their pieces in the middle half of the 20th Century at a very complicated period in world history. After the atrocities of World War II, artists were asking themselves, What is art for? What should we be writing? What should we be creating? Even though they are not high European Romantics, I would still qualify Rachmaninoff, Copland, and Barber all as occupying some sort of space between Romantics and Modernists. You have three composers who, each for their own reasons, were searching for their place in the musical world.”
Knoxville’s own musical world is unrelentingly diverse, something not lost on the KSO’s maestro.
“I kind of wanted to accomplish two things when putting together this program: Fusing the story of the symphony with the story of Knoxville’s trajectory through history and into the future. And also, enlightening our audience as to what a fascinating artistic legacy Knoxville has, particularly in an arena with classical music and concert music that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Knoxville.”