After Sunday afternoon’s Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Chamber Classics concert, several things should now be readily apparent to the KSO’s audience. One—KSO music director Aram Demirjian intends on gently coaxing listeners into exploring new and/or alternative musical territory. Two—listeners simply can’t get enough of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly when performed well and in the right environment. And Three—listeners simply can’t get enough of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Demirjian and the strings of the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra offered up a program centered on Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, a program which then jumped ahead almost 300 years to take on works by Dmitri Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke, Osvaldo Golijov, and the contemporary New York composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery.
I can’t help but feel it was also curiosity that helped pack the seats in Sunday’s concert—curiosity in how the combination of two supremely talented violinists playing J.S. Bach on two Stradivarius violins would sound in the sublime acoustics of the Bijou Theatre. But, now we know. The performance of concertmaster William Shaub and principal second violin Edward Pulgar as soloists in the Bach Double Concerto was bold and assertive, yet beautifully and strategically balanced—with a sound that radiated both a silken clarity and warmth. The ensemble balance and string presence perfectly complemented the soloists.
Note: The Stradivarius violins, which dated from the 1690s, were made available to the KSO through an arrangement with the New York office of Florian Leonhard Fine Violins and director Jonathan Solars.
Demirjian opened the concert with Alfred Schnittke’s Moz-Art à la Haydn, a welcome musical visitor from 1977. Shaub and Pulgar took the violin solo roles in this piece that uses fleeting references to a number of works, including Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, and ending Haydn Farewell Symphony-style with the players leaving the stage as the stage lights dimmed to blackness. Schnittke is reported to have said “The goal of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so.” The work exemplifies that willingness to parody the establishment that was a characteristic of the 1970s. Whether or not you remember the decade with fondness, or at all, is another thing altogether.
It probably was no coincidence that Demirjian opened the concert with Schnittke and concluded it with Shostakovich, two composers who lived under Soviet jurisdiction and whose careers were affected by it. Schnittke’s early work was influenced by Shostakovich, but the composer later moved toward a style quite different—something he called polystylism—like the work on this concert.
The Shostakovich work was his Chamber Symphony, an arrangement of the composer’s String Quartet No. 8. The five movements are played without pause, pulling listeners into the dense layering of string texture that miraculously seems just the opposite. There are references to two of the composer’s earlier works, his Cello Concerto and an aria from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, intended to make a statement from works that were generally rejected by the authorities.
Again, the orchestra found a golden balance between depths and heights, sweetness and harshness, brightness and gloom, as if any of those characteristics by themselves define Shostakovich’s music.
The orchestra also found a way to have the remaining two works on the program—the second movement “Deaths of the Angels” from Golijov’s Last Round and Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst—contribute to texture and depth of the program.
Bach returns on the next and last Chamber Classics program of the season, with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Mozart’s final symphony, the “Jupiter”, concludes the program that also sandwiches in Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat, “Dunbarton Oaks” and Christopher Theofanidis’ recent work, Muse.