Two weeks ago I attended the November concert of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. It was the second concert conducted by our new music director, Aram Demirjian, and my second concert of the season as I had missed in October due to travel plans. Generally, I was impressed with this performance and attending the concert made for a lovely evening. Demirjian and the orchestra seem to be growing into each other and the evening's performance was for the most part smooth with a good sense flow and pacing. It was a happy and satisfying evening, and although there were perhaps a few places where I disagreed with the interpretation of the music, I felt the performance was perfectly suited to this time and this place, and was able to relax and let my more intellectual neurons be lulled by happy sounds.
The concert opened with Charles Ives' "Variations on America", which is often whimsical, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes angry, and definitely the work of a brash young man with all of that combination of bitterness, hope, innocence and joy that is the purview of our teenage selves. It was a fun piece and I enjoyed the performance although I felt that some of the snarkier bits had been muffled, but that is not such a bad thing, and the lighthearted music reminded me at least that we all too often take ourselves far too seriously. In short it was a good introduction to an evening of American music.
The Ives was followed by William Grant Still's Symphony #1 (Afro-American Symphony). It is a beautiful work, very American with its strong blues influences and jazz rhythms, and it was also very texturally interesting and engaging. It is at times rather cinematic, and this from a listener who generally is not fond of the majority of composers who fuse cinematic with classical elements. Most of these pieces simply sound shallow and boring to me, but this could not really be said of anything I have heard by Ives, and not by the Still piece as well.
In the second half of the concert we heard Jeff Midkiff's Mandolin Concerto: From the Blue Ridge. I had been fortunate to attend a luncheon at which Midkiff and his wife were guests of honor and enjoyed speaking with them as well as hearing Aram Demirjian's thoughts on the programming, which he also repeated at the concert. And the mandolin concert was a very easy to listen to piece, filled with familiar bluegrass inspired and "Appalachian" sounds but it wasn't at dynamic and interesting as the previous two pieces. Midkiff plays an American mandolin, which is shallower and although wonderful in bluegrass music, has a flatter sound than its older historical cousins. I suppose I could wish that the Midkiff was less a clichéd piece of Appalachian-inspired music, and although lovely, it seemed out of place among the other three pieces performed in the concert, all of which were more complexly interesting, and none of which succumbed to expected platitudes. That said, it was enjoyable, and the piece received a standing ovation.
I believe the generous applause was primarily due to the music's familiarity and therefore high comfort level. It has been my observation that the biggest applause at many a symphony performance seems to routinely awarded to those pieces that are, to my mind, the least deserving in terms of their merits in terms of music and performance, and yet are the pieces dearest to the audience's heart. I have learned to accept this, although some inner part of me still clenches, thinking of one of the worst Beethoven performances I have ever heard, conducted by our former music director, which was rewarded with ovations and cheering and foot stamping galore. I recognized, after talking to other members of the cheering audience, that most had relaxed into easy familiarity with a favorite piece, and this too is an important aspect of performance and audience building. It is something I have done myself, especially in my youth, before George ruined me, and taught me to pay more attention. But I have increasingly learned to lock my more analytical intellectual side in a closet when listening to a concert in order to simply enjoy the time and the experience. She still gets out, and I cannot silence my inner critic, but at the same time, I also accept that an excess of criticism does nothing to aide in pure and simple enjoyment of life. Increasingly, stepping back, and allowing enjoyment rule, seems more rewarding.
The final work of that Friday, two weeks ago, was the orchestral suite from Aaron Copeland's ballet, "Appalachian Spring". In keeping with the rest of the program, Demirjian emphasized this sense of stereotypical Americana and "Appalachian" spirit, which I frankly do not see as the dominant theme in this work, which is incredibly complex. I enjoyed the performance nonetheless and I also recognize that it was the right performance in the right place and at the right time, less than two weeks after an election that has polarized many. Besides I recognize that a symphony needs its audience, and a symphony that played exclusively to my taste might be hard pressed to survive. I could listen to music as I think it should be performed in the sanctuary of my own home, on excellent recordings, but I would lose the frisson of live performance and I continue to enjoy and learn and grow from each performance I attend. Life locked up in a stuffy tower, living in one's own head, is no one's path to wisdom or humanity.