KSO This Week: Pictures at an Exhibition and Barber Violin Concerto

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra: Pictures at an Exhibition
Guest conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos; guest violinist Elena Urioste
Thursday, March 17, and Friday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m.
Tennessee Theatre, 604 S. Gay Street in Downtown Knoxville, Tickets and Info or 865-291-3310
John Adams: The Chairman Dances
Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition
(The review for these concerts can be found in the Knoxville Mercury, issue of March 24)


An early and sudden death took the Russian architect and painter, Viktor Hartmann, in 1873. After his death, the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg organized an exhibition of over 400 of his water colors and drawings—an exhibition of some importance to an intimate friend, the composer Modest Mussorgsky. Touched by the sadness of his friend’s death and his attraction to the exhibition’s works, Mussorgsky embarked on the composition of a piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition, of ten impressions of Hartmann paintings he viewed during his visit to the exhibition. He also prefaced and bridged the first five impressions with a “Promenade,” or a portrayal of the composer walking back and forth through the collection in anticipation and sadness.

The piano suite has been arranged and orchestrated a number of times, but the most successful and popular one is the treatment by Maurice Ravel, heard on this week’s program. Ravel’s version was created in 1922 on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, who premiered the work in Paris in 1923. The sections of the works are as follows:

I. Gnomus
II. Il vecchio castello
III. Tuileries
IV. Bydlo
V. Ballet of Little Chicks in their Shells
VI. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle
VII. The Market Place in Limoges
VIII. Catacombae – Cum mortuis in lingua mortua
IX. The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)
X. The Great Gate of Kiev


Photography: Sophie Zhai

Violinist Elena Urioste (Photography: Sophie Zhai)

Knoxville was last treated to violinist Elena Urioste seven years ago this month—March of 2009—when she was KSO guest soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor. Then, at age 23, she was impressive beyond her years. In my review for Metro Pulse of that concert I stated: “…Urioste is one the most accomplished young violinists performing in the United States today. She seems to possess an innate stage maturity…Her performance radiated a life that transcended mere technical mastery.”

On this visit, she will be taking up Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto from 1939, a work that luxuriates in the strikingly different effect it generally has on audiences. The work grew out of a commission from Samuel Fels, a Philadelphia industrialist and philanthropist, for a violin concerto for his adopted son and violinist, Iso Briselli. Barber had been suggested for the commission—his first—by New York Times music critic, Gama Gilbert.

For reasons that are regularly debated by music scholars, Briselli was apparently unhappy with the work and refused it. Eventually, Barber found an enthusiastic soloist, Albert Spalding, who gave the first public performance in February of 1941 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

By almost all 20th Century standards, the Barber Violin Concerto is lusciously lyrical, perhaps even hypnotic in its sweetness and delicious melody. As a trick of sonic perception, the first two movements both seem tranquil and unrushed, although they are notated Allegro and Andante, respectively. The third movement, no doubt the cause of Briselli’s unhappiness, bristles with a presto tempo and a complexity of rhythm that is enthusiastic and propelling.


The guest conductor for this week’s MoxleyCarmichael Masterworks concert is the fifth of six conductors vying for the KSO music director position, Jacomo Rafael Bairos. He will open the concert with a John Adams opener from 1985, The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra), an orchestral work that grew out of, and during, his work on his opera, Nixon in China.

Conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos

Conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos