A Catharsis and a KSO Review

Wednesday of this week was a gray, dreary, depressing day in Knoxville—and I don’t just mean the weather. The rain from the sky that day was no match for the visible and invisible tears that fell from heavy hearts over the closing down of Metro Pulse, the newspaper for which I had been the classical music critic for seven years since 2007. The closing came at the hands of Metro Pulse’s parent company, E.W. Scripps, for many of the same stated financial reasons that have marked the decline of print journalism in the U.S. over the last decades. In this case, however, the corporate management and its bean-counter rationale seemed particularly oblivious to what they were closing down and the negative effects that would befall the revitalizing city and its arts and entertainment scene as a result—in a number of categories.

Even longer ago than the seven years of my writing for Metro Pulse, complaints were being heard in every quarter of the City as to how the local media— especially the daily newspaper—was systematically dropping coverage and support of the arts. Having recently been living and working in the New York and Los Angeles arts world, it was apparent to me that the Knoxville daily newspaper’s paltry efforts toward covering the arts were slowly destroying the visibility and credibility of what should be a powerful community asset. And the arts and music coverage—particularly classical music coverage—that still existed in that daily newspaper made a mockery of what arts journalism was supposed to be. Sadly, some organizations merely accepted that this was the way it had to be.

When Scripps acquired Metro Pulse in 2007 and brought Coury Turczyn back as Editor, I approached him with the proposal to cover classical music. Unlike his counterpart at the daily, Turczyn was delighted and thrilled to add classical music coverage to the already eclectic mix, and so it started. At first, many in the arts community were surprised that fine arts were being covered again, but that surprise eventually turned to thankfulness for the visibility that we were able to give an entire segment of the arts—a segment that could have easily slowly faded from view.

Although it pains me to think it, we may be back to Day 1 again and that my seven years of work being a progressive advocate for classical music may have been largely in vain. With the demise of Metro Pulse, there is no longer a newspaper in Knoxville that adequately covers arts and provides critical information, despite what corporate press releases and editorials would like you to believe. As a result, at least in the short term, I’ll continue to post my classical music commentary and pertinent music news in this blog, to the extent I can afford to. Perhaps more can come of it.

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While Wednesday was truly a sad day, I can thank the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra for lifting my spirits (no pun intended) on Thursday and Friday. Guest conductor Sameer Patel was on the podium for this week’s Masterworks pair of concerts at the Tennessee Theatre, concerts that included the Halloween-season favorites, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. As I stated in my preview in the final issue of Metro Pulse this week, those two works are achingly familiar via a multitude of recordings, but live performances are actually a bit more rare. Those two works are a feast of textures and instrumental colors; tight, vividly expressive performances of those descriptive textures by the KSO brought a welcome smile to a lot of faces.

As impressive and entertaining as the Mussorgsky and Dukas were, the highlight of the evening, Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, was on a decidedly loftier plane of existence and performance. Patel gave the work a vibrant dynamic breath that ranged from the startlingly quiet and emotional, to the bombastic and overwhelmingly forceful. While the performance was filled with details—both subtle and bold—that came as a surprise in an already surprising work, it was Patel’s broad narrative continuity throughout that made the performance so compelling.

Although a lot of really impressive instrumental performances filled the evening, a highlight was the opening of the third movement, “Scene in the Country,” a gorgeous, leisurely, heartrending dialog between the English horn (Ayca Yayman) and the offstage oboe (Claire Chenette). In the final movement, “Dream of a Witches Sabbath,” the woodwinds become grotesque dancers, while the strings chatter like the scratching of evil on a window pane. The fortissimo finale, full of brass and furor, reverberated through the hall, clearly banishing, at least temporarily, whatever cares lurked in our hearts. The power of music can overcome it all.

Given Maestro Patel’s personal warmth and apparent genuineness, and the intelligent interpretations of the weekend’s performance, I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear more from him in the future.

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