Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Salutes Veterans Day – Arts Knoxville
BY ALAN SHERROD
SSeizing the occasion of November 11 and Veterans Day coinciding with its November Masterpiece Concert Schedule, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Aram Demirjian chose to honor the occasion with a program entitled “Service and the Spirit: A Tribute to Veterans”. The first half of the evening focused on a veterans-related theme supported by narration delivered by WBIR-TV’s John Becker that was woven with five musical works that vaguely communicated the spirit of conflict and patriotic resolve.
Interestingly, four of these works would have been welcome in any concert at any time, even without a particular theme – and three of them were intriguing and rarely heard gems of the American orchestral repertoire. Demirjian opened with William Grant Still’s Festive openinga work that won “Best Overture” for its composer in a 1944 competition sponsored by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Demirjian and the orchestra then followed with Samuel Barber’s symphonic poem, night flight, a work that was a revised version of the second movement of the composer’s Symphony No. 2, premiered in 1944 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This original symphony and its second movement had an interesting addition, the use of a tone generator to suggest a radio beam in World War II bombers on night duty. Barber then revised the work, replacing the electronic device with an E-flat clarinet.
John Williams’ film music has touched all categories of film genres, all eras and all subjects. Included here was music from the 1976 Pacific War epic Half-way-“Men of Yorktown.”
After the obligatory “armed forces salute”, Demirjian and the KSO concluded the first half with Aaron Copland Portrait of Lincoln which featured author, historian, and Knoxville military veteran Robert J. Booker performing the narration.
For the second half of the concert, Demirjian made a loose connection to the first half with a rendition of Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. This symphony was premiered in 1945 by the Moscow State Philharmonic Orchestra at a time when the tide was turning on the Eastern Front of World War II and optimism accompanied Soviet armies repelling German invaders. The symphony was widely advertised at the premiere and brought its composer a resurgent popularity he would never truly enjoy again.
Part of this popularity is the masterfully crafted variety of emotions that Prokofiev was able to capture and hone, all without fleeing the dictates of his symphonic ancestors. Within an arrangement that varies the movements by alternating tempo and scale, the moments of musical violence are finally tempered by softness while the dark gloom is overcome by joy and exuberance. As such, the work is a wild roller coaster ride of breathless turmoil, lyrical optimism and reflection, followed by a joyous and explosive final chord. Despite the harmonic complexity of the work and the mixture of lyricism and fierceness, Demirjian and the orchestra delivered an excellent performance that was both enthusiasm and attention to balance and instrumental color. And congratulations to the percussion section for their enormous contribution, as well as to the cellos and basses.
Strangely – or maybe not – a notable number of viewers and regular KSO subscribers opted out of this pair of masterpieces. In this case, those who missed the concert missed an opportunity to hear music that just isn’t played often. This certainly applies to the William Grant Still Festive opening as well as Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. Of course, everyone is free to form their own opinion. In a way, it’s one of the freedoms that Veterans Day celebrates.