In Performance: UT Symphony “Orchestral Romance”

At Sunday’s UT Symphony concert, I overheard some audience members converse in passing: “Well, they should sound great. Half the [expletive deleted] Knoxville Symphony violin section is playing.”

Now wait a minute…that was just plain hyperbole—there were only four “guest” players, the two UT violin faculty members and two other KSO violinists. And the orchestra did sound great. And, no doubt, the veteran players filled out and added solidity to the section. But that does not really account for the overall superb performance of the orchestra as a whole in the three works on that evening’s concert. This is an orchestra that has grown in consistency and proficiency over the last several years under Maestro Fellenbaum to a level few would have thought possible in such a short span.

Clarinetist Gary Sperl, KSO Principal Clarinet and School of Music faculty member, performed the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, using a basset clarinet (on loan from Buffet), the type of instrument that Mozart wrote the piece for in 1791. Before the performance, Sperl, Fellenbaum, and Angelique Postic (UT Symphony Principal Clarinet) gave a short show-and-tell demonstration of the differences in appearance and sound between a conventional clarinet and the basset clarinet. The basset has a lower range and a more mellow tone. I noticed that Sperl was wearing a neck strap, so I assume that the extra weight is an issue for a standing player as well. Sperl coaxed a gorgeous tone from the instrument–rich and golden. The extra low end was solid, and oddly comforting. The passages of fast runs rippled and twinkled with precision. And, Sperl’s attention to stepping dynamics had one breathing with him.

Fellenbaum handed over the podium to graduating conducting student Rachel Grubb for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 in c minor, “The Little Russian.” I was very impressed with Grubb’s mastery of the piece and her ability to use the orchestra to tell an abstract story.

In my preview of the work in Metro Pulse, I called the Tchaikovsky Two a little gem. A more accurate description might be a piece of costume jewelry that is just a little odd and misshapen. The second movement (Andantino marziale, quasi moderato) was a march that Tchaikovsky lifted from his opera, Undine. The movement is really engaging, even a little addictive, but it clearly seemed to be in the wrong country. Grubb took special care with the Finale movement—with a wonderful sense of dynamics and a wonderful display of  instrumental force.

Fellenbaum’s opener was Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino. While the music may have portended doom with those opening notes, the destiny of the UT Symphony is indeed bright if it continues performing as the accomplished university orchestra it has become.

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