KSO wraps up 2021-22 season with a riveting beat – Knoxville Arts
BY ALAN SHERROD
In days ago– which now includes everything that was before the end of the pandemic – we could count on the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra for a season-ending concert that somehow included both an energetic and emotional musical experience. Sensitive chords were often pulled ruthlessly, and audiences generally returned home energized, but satiated, with fond memories of the season’s concerts. After a two-year absence of thematic grand finales, Maestro Aram Demirjian and the KSO took a fascinating stylistic turn in last weekend’s Masterworks and delivered a rhythm-centric program that succeeded brilliantly on many levels, including the admiration for musicality and tons of entertainment.
The four works of the evening had both similarities and differences, but each made bold style statements and provided a feast of showcase opportunities for KSO players and guest artists. And in each, the drums, whether in terms of texture or rhythm, were absolutely fundamental to their hearts and souls. Demirjian opened the concert with Drums: a symphonic poem by jazz pianist and composer James P. Johnson. Often referred to as “the greatest jazz pianist you’ve never heard of…”, Johnson is another African-American composer finally getting his due, albeit nearly 70 years after his death. The work is brimming with energy and driving movement with harmonies that border on European classical tradition and dissonant modernism, while reflecting American show music, without ever losing its jazz theme and base of variations.
The headline work for the first half of the evening brought the Knoxville drum quartet, Indigenous Vibes, to the stage for Saber: Concerto for African percussion and orchestra by James DeMars. Sabar refers to a traditional drum from Senegal that is played with one hand and a stick. DeMars’ four-movement work combines Sabar drums as solo instruments with an orchestral score that is beautifully cross-cultural in both its rhythmic impact and percussive texture. While successful fusion works that feature non-Western instruments against a traditional orchestral backdrop are relatively rare, this concerto is certainly a contender for one that seems to intrigue audiences in whatever musical niche it occupies.
Indigenous Vibes consists of Obayana Ajanaku and three of his former Austin-East percussion students JaDarius Fuller, Jamarr Underwood and Jaylon Toms.
The second half of the program took another turn with Duke Ellington’s sequel version of Black, brown and beige, originally composed for his performance at Carnegie Hall with his orchestra in 1943. The suite consists of the imposing first movement of the longer work of the same name, itself composed of three sections: “Work Song”, ” Come Sunday” and “Light”. . The work is awash with addictive melodic melodies made infinitely intriguing by jazz harmonies and instrumental textures.
As if the KSO musicians of the evening hadn’t had enough showcase opportunities, Demirjian concluded with what is probably the ultimate showcase for instrumentalists, Maurice Ravel Bolero. Originally conceived as a ballet for dancer Ida Rubenstein, the work is now known for its seductive repetition that draws the listener in with a gradual crescendo and layer upon layer of instrumental texture. The relentless rhythm of the snare drum and the ever-increasing volume of the orchestra produce a pre-orgasmic musical tension that seems unsustainable, which it is. A sudden change of key in E major is like a breath of fresh air, but it is distorted by spasms of luscious dissonance which then give way to the joyous final resolution. Obviously a fitting finale for the 2021-22 season.
As mentioned, the entire evening of four works was filled with delicious solos by the wealth of talent of KSO: snare drummer in Bolero, Clark Harrel; Principal flute Devan Jaquez as well as section members Jill Bartine and Cynthia D’Andrea; principal bassoon Justin Cummings; Principal clarinet Gary Sperl; Principal Oboe Claire Chenette; Ayca Yayman on oboe d’amore Bolero; Elizabeth Merrill on English horn; Solo trombone Samuel Chen in a magnificent Bolero turn; principal trumpet Phillip Chase Hawkins; Principal horn Jeffery Whaley and his horn section; saxophonists Nathan Keedy and John Cippola; principal cellist Andy Bryenton; and concertmaster William Shaub. And “pulling a chord” – during its landmark mentions for orchestral musicians, the KSO announced two retirements from the orchestra: Eunsoon Lee Corliss after 37 years, and cellist D.Scot Williams after 45 years.