Bob Dylan once sang “you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows,” and when it comes to determining the mood of the country, there’s probably not a more accurate lyric.
Aram Demirjian, the conductor and music director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, sees it whenever he has time to bother with social media. (He’s a busy guy; a recent interview with The Daily Times was conducted via phone, while Demirjian was on a train from New York to Boston.) Anyone with the slightest of pressure on the pulse of national discourse sees it as well.
There’s an often ugly, visceral mood between two polarized ideological extremes. Congeniality, respect and decorum are in short supply. Unity seems as extinct as the dinosaurs. And it appears to be more difficult, even on occasions when both sides should bridge the gap between them — on Independence Day, for example — for bitterly divided individuals to find common ground.
Which is why, Demirjian told The Daily Times recently, the annual Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Pilot/Flying J Independence Day Concert — which takes place next Thursday at World’s Fair Park in downtown Knoxville — may very well be the most important collection of works he programs all year.
“I feel a great sense of responsibility when preparing the July Fourth program,” he said. “Certainly, all you need is an internet connection to understand that we live in very divisive and challenging times in the way that we all relate as Americans — but ultimately, we are all Americans, and I want the July Fourth program to be an opportunity for everybody to be able to celebrate what America means to them. Because even though we experience our country in different ways, we all share it and need to live together harmoniously in it.”
To that end, programming the annual outdoor celebration, which segues into a fireworks spectacular launched from the base of the Sunsphere, is a delicate balancing act. There are certain patriotic standards that are included every year — the National Anthem, “America the Beautiful,” the “Armed Forces Salute,” the “1812 Overture” — but to build out a concert that needs to be sweeping in scope and majestic in sound, Demirjian has a rough formula he uses to round out the playbill.
“I often look at two factors when trying to create the July Fourth program and trying to keep it fresh: Are there significant milestones, anniversaries or anything of the sort that would be appropriate to commemorate on the Fourth of July?” he said. “In 2019, there are two major ones. Seventy-five years ago was D-Day, so we’ll be doing a little bit in memorial to those that fought in D-Day and World War II by playing both ‘Hymn to the Fallen,’ John Williams’ composition from ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ and ‘Victory at Sea,’ by Richard Rodgers. All of that certainly ties in to the ‘Armed Forces Salute,’ and altogether, it’s a substantial acknowledgement of those who served and the sacrifices they and their families made.”
The other milestone that the program will commemorate, he added, is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Visuals of that achievement will be broadcast for the audience while the KSO plays selections from the film “Apollo 13.”
“We recognize that it wasn’t the Apollo mission for the moon landing, but it’s the closest available, and it conjures up the spirit, because it’s extremely majestic,” Demirjian said. “The other factor I’m always thinking about when programming the July Fourth concert is all of the different meanings that patriotism can have. Certainly there is an element of celebrating our history and celebrating the achievements and sacrifices of our service members, and celebrating great American achievements like the moon landing, but it’s also a celebration of just the kind of general national pride in the country we’ve created.”
While many of the traditional patriotic numbers serve that goal, Demirjian also seeks to build out the program with selections that are a nod to the nation’s diversity — music by African American composers, by women and more.
“The centerpiece of the program is (Aaron) Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ — a piece by a gay man, who happens to be the dean of American composers,” Demirjian said. “I always wanted the July Fourth program in particular to be as absolutely inclusive of a program as possible, because America means so many different things to so many different people.”
And, he added, next Thursday’s performance is a time for the orchestra and its musician members to put their best feet forward. Although the KSO’s 2019-20 season doesn’t begin until September, the Independence Day concert, Demirjian pointed out, may very well be the biggest concert the ensemble performs all year.
“We reach a much broader representation and a much broader population of Knoxville and Knox County and East Tennessee than we typically reach in almost any of our other events throughout the year,” he said. “This will be, for many people, the one Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concert they attend. We strive at the KSO to make sure anybody who wants to, has access to symphonic music. That’s why we put on concerts like the July Fourth concert.
“It brings me great joy and us great joy to experience the joy that the music is able to bring to a mix of folks. Some are regular audience members at KSO performances, but there are many for whom the July Fourth concert is a special annual occasion, as well as their only opportunity to hear an orchestra live, and that’s fulfilling and validating to us as performers.”
Of course, the hope is that next Thursday’s performance will be majestic and powerful enough to persuade those who have been once-a-year symphony-goers to test the waters when the season kicks off in earnest. The Masterworks series, which involves the full symphony and is performed over two-night spans at The Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville, launches the season on Sept. 19 with a performance of “The Planets” suite by composer Gustav Holst. Although the original composition dealt with the internal alignment of the soul, the advent of technology will allow the symphony to marry images of the various physical planets with the music being performed.
Other concert series on tap for the coming year include the return of the Q Series, a lunchtime performance of classical music that’s a more intimate experience, Demirjian said.
“There are folks who really want to see the full orchestra, but it can be equally different and exciting to get up close and personal with a small group of musicians,” he said. “The Q Series and our Concertmaster Series allow that. It gives you a chance to get to know some of our musicians a little bit better, not only because they’re the featured performers, but because they’re also the hosts and the emcees of the concert. They talk to the audience and interact with them, and beyond that, the music is selected entirely by them. I have very little to do with the planning and the execution.”
For those whose tastes run more popular than classical, the KSO Pops Series is the perfect intersection. The coming season’s Pops programming features the symphony paying tribute to (and working with a rock cover band to do so) both Neil Diamond and the Rolling Stones. There’s also a collaborative concert with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra on tap, and the KSO will perform a live score to the classic film “Singin’ in the Rain” as well — something Demirjian is particularly looking forward to.
“There’s nothing like being able to accompany Gene Kelly,” he said.
There’s also the Chamber Classics Series, which features the KSO Chamber ensemble performing on Sunday afternoons at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville. Chamber Classics programs include one honoring the 250th birthday of Beethoven, works composed by Tschaikovsky and Mozart, a Christmas collaboration with the Knoxville Choral Society on Handel’s “Messiah” and a family program centered on “Peter and the Wolf and Other Symphonic Tales.”
But while KSO programming takes place every month from September through May, with concerts designed for every conceivable format (from chamber musicians to the full orchestra), those various series still only make up a quarter of the KSO’s performance output. Through its education programs, the organization serves communities in a 19-county region, performing everywhere from children’s libraries to classrooms to hospitals, all of them designed to further the idea that KSO belongs to all East Tennesseans.
“We strive to keep our ticket sales at a very reasonable rate,” Demirjian said. “You can come to one of our Masterworks concerts for no more than $15, and if there’s a young person in your life, you can bring them for practically free as part of our involvement in the Penny 4 the Arts program.”