I have written quite a bit this fall on the subject of Dvorák and his intersection with American music (see review of the New World Symphony in October), so I was naturally excited for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto with cellist Zuill Bailey on last weekend’s concerts. I wasn’t disappointed. However, with Enesco’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra on the bill as well, there was quite a lot of treasure to be found in all corners of the stage.
I’ve tried to train myself to look past a performer’s stage presence, particularly if it seems to unduly affect one’s opinion of a performance, positively or negatively. Bailey is something of the exception here as his ultra-relaxed stage persona oozing confidence and charisma seems to be genuine and sincere—a style that seduces the audience with a refreshing transparency. What shone through that transparency, and what made this such a rewarding listen, was a gorgeously rich cello tone with just enough edge wrapped in a judicious vibrato.
Bailey and Maestro Lucas Richman combined for a concerto performance that was every bit a continuation of the orchestra’s New World last month. Yet again, I was struck by what seemed to be specific American sensibilities of tone and atmosphere from both the cello and the orchestral balance. This was not Europe, nor the bustle of cities, but rather a lush, green, musical landscape of the New World of our imagination filled with poignancy, a touch of sadness–yet with an air of expectation. This carried through into all the instrumental flavors as well, from the exposed horn passages to the woodwinds.
As Richman indicated in his introductory remarks, this concert was to be a showcase of instrumental performance—and the opening and closing works on the concert were certainly that. Georges Enesco’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1, a swirl of folk melodies not unlike a peasant wagon careening downhill, is a feast for players from the opening tune of clarinet, oboe, and flute, to lush waltzes in the strings. Give Richman a hand as well for an addictive rhythmical take throughout.
Richman closed the evening with a fulfilling ride through Béla Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Against the background of the poignant Dvorak and the rhythmical Enesco, the work was alive, vital, and urban, sometimes brooding, sometimes snapping with the sudden energy that comes from the host of individual player moments—way too many brilliant ones to mention, unfortunately.