REVIEW: “An Age of Enlightenment”

I admit that I have taken a few good-natured jabs at this season’s UT Faculty Chamber Music Series, Music of the Ages, for the rather esoteric connections between the concert sub-titles and the works on the programs. Yesterday’s concert, titled An Age of Enlightenment, was another of these in which one would be hard pressed to make any connection at all. In reality, the titles do not matter a whit, although it remains a curiosity why one would go to such trouble except to provide an opportunity for a beautifully designed series poster. I have enjoyed the puzzles, I must admit.

One of the participating faculty members, Sande MacMorran, did a least make an attempt with a connection. As the tuba member of the Brasswind Quintet that performed Malcolm Arnold’s Quintet for Brass, op. 73, MacMorran suggested that music for brass quintet was generally “un-enlightened” until Arnold came along with his in 1961 and provided brass players with a seriously developed work. He also stated that the work has been a popular work for the quintet. One can see why—it contains suggestions of familiar melodies, a touch of jazz syncopation, humor, and an altogether likable brass tonality that is eminently accessible to a wide audience.

In what appeared to be a substitution for the previously announced Crisantemi (Puccini) for string quartet, cellist Wesley Baldwin and pianist Kevin Class offered three short works by the late Alan Shulman: Lament, Homage to Erik Satie, and Serenade.  Despite the melancholy nature of each of these, Class and Baldwin performed perfectly as a duo and gave the pieces a beautifully lyrical directness that thrilled. I did notice a practically indiscernible overtone or possibly a sympathetic vibration from an unknown source during the pieces that thankfully did not rise to the level of  distraction. What was that?

Mark Harrell’s “Intermezzo” and “Palmetto Waltz” from his opera-in-progress The Stainless Banner have been heard previously in this venue and others. This performance was a quartet arrangement that featured faculty members Miroslav Hristov, violin; Phylis Secrist, oboe; Calvin Smith, horn; and Fay Adams, piano. Harrell’s pleasant and lyrical tonality with suggestions of historical melodies is unabashedly illustrative, even cinematic, in its depictions. Come to think of it, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, although I fear there will be new music expressionists with a differing opinion.

Also on the program was Brahms’ Two Songs, op. 91, performed by mezzo soprano Lorraine DiSimone, violist Hillary Herndon, and pianist Kevin Class. I particularly appreciated that Class knew full well the significant voice Brahms gave the piano in chamber music and offered it perfectly. Equally beautiful was the rich vocal quality and tone that Herndon brought to the viola line, particularly in the second lullaby, “Geistliches Wiegenlied.”

Gentle chiding aside, I should make clear that a chamber music series like this one is a very important one for both the faculty musicians and the local classical music audience. The series is unique in Knoxville for the performance opportunities it offers. May it continue and flourish.

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