Friday night was symphony night in Knoxville. Following a dinner with friends that ran a little late, I was concerned that I would miss the beginning of the concert and admittedly pushed ahead. As we walked to the theater, shades of my college self resurfaced in my mind, memories of being accused, even then, of being more interested in music than in people. Of course it was not true then, and it is not true now, but on Friday night I was indeed more interested in getting to the concert than in lingering over dinner.
I was happy that I arrived before the music started, as I enjoyed the first work, Missy Mizzoli's Violent, Violent Sea. But I did not know the name of the piece until after I listened to it. Since I arrived late, near the end of the talk, just before the music started, I listened to the piece free of expectation. I heard a rather impressionistic work, without any clear narrative, with a somewhat placid and almost joyful manner, occasionally broken up by a sense of hidden danger lurking beneath the surface, the tension brought out by a deep rumbling beginning in the bass. I thought of a day on the beach and a hidden undertow, although the same technique is used in movie scores and other thematic music. The piece ends with a sharp, but brief startling movement, like a slap in the face, or someone dumping ice down the back of your collar. Between pieces I glanced at the program, making note of the title of the work, the double use of the word violent and felt a sense of discongruity with my experience of the music itself. Although I could relate to a sense of mild foreboding, as mentioned above, and I did indeed think of a beach, I heard no great turbulence or violence in the music itself. The piece felt more akin to the suspenseful build up impending threat, that one hears in suspense and horror movies than anything truly dangerous or violent. Perhaps that was the point, the threat of hidden or unanticipated violence rather than the violence itself, but the disconnect between title and work felt more like another example of the kind of hyperbolic excess and overstatement that seems to populate modern life. Everything is the "most unique", "best", "worst", "most amazing" whatever in our modern life, when what commonly results is slavish hype and attention over what are ultimately small things, and we follow along like sheep. It was a lovely piece although it was hardly violent, pleasant enough and enjoyable even, but ultimately just another pleasant and enjoyable way to while away an evening.
The second piece, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor was beautifully performed by pianist Fei Fei Dong, and the orchestra, led by guest conductor Edwin Outwater. It is of course a beatiful piece, justifyably popular, and Mozart balances truly stormy and turbulent passages with movements of great lyrical beauty and hopefulness. This performance was emotionally resonant, although at times it was also perhaps a little too determined in its execution. The second movement in particular was nuanced and balanced, bringing sense of harmony between musicians and music, always a lovely treat. Dong's performance was beautifully executed, the orchestra and the soloist played well together, and yet this listener, despite the fact that she enjoyed the performance, also felt a bit unsettled. It has in fact taken me these couple of days to articulate this puzzling sense of enjoyment with a soupçon of doubt. In the end I believe it came down to this: The performance was indeed beautiful and satisfying, but there was something that I can only call "Mozartness" that was lacking — it was Mozart but it wasn't. I felt as if the entire piece had been transported to another time, and perhaps this linked to the sense I had of the performance being a bit too determined, as if Mozart had been teleported a hundred years and become a romantic composer, and something was lost in the translation.
The concert ended with Robert Schumann's Symphony Number 2, which was skillfully and eloquently performed, but was also perhaps too placid, a programming error following the Mozart performance. The second half felt a bit like being trapped in a slowly deflating balloon. The Mozart performance out romanticized the Schumann, the Schumann fizzled in comparison. I understand that it is usual to schedule the guest artist before the intermission, but then you need something rousing to close out the concert, to carry the heightened emotions. I think I can discern an intention and a theme in the programming, and yet the idea was perhaps not fulfilled. A misstep, yes, but only a small one in what has, overall, been a fabulous season.