Clay Himes

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra will be performing this Friday and Saturday at the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum in honor of the late Irving Berlin, a man who dedicated his life to music and whose compositions are still familiar to today’s generation.
The KSO was officially founded in 1935 and since then has seen a rise in expectations and excellence each year. In 1978, director Zoltan Rozsnyai hired 16 full-time string players who formed the roots of the modern Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.
Lucas Richman currently conducts the orchestra, which has become one of the finest in the region. Its budget has swollen to more than $3 million, with 84 full-time professional musicians performing more than 200 programs throughout East Tennessee every year. By performing in large venues such as the Civic Auditorium and Tennessee Theatre, and unconventional ones such as school classrooms, nursing homes and city parks, KSO is estimated to perform for 160,000 people each year.
This particular weekend the KSO will be paying tribute to the ingenuity and style of Berlin, one of America’s greatest modern composers. Born as Israel Baline to a Jewish couple in Russia, Berlin immigrated to the United States in 1891. After his father’s death in 1896, young Berlin worked to keep from starving, which affected his spending later in life. While working at a café in New York, he was asked to write an original song to be performed for the café’s customers. The result was the tune, “Marie from Sunny Italy.” It earned him 37 cents and even gave him the name he went by the rest of his life. His name was misspelled “I. Berlin” on the original copy of the song.
From that point on, Berlin devoted himself to music and his career took flight. The true testament to Berlin’s talent as a composer is the ability his music has to stand the test of time. Practically everyone today has heard his most popular songs, including “White Christmas,” “Heat Wave” and “God Bless America.” “God Bless America” was so popular on its release that many petitioned for it to become the new national anthem, and “White Christmas” is now known as the most recorded song ever since the Bing Crosby edition sold 30 million copies. Berlin also wrote many musicals, the most popular of which was “Annie Get Your Gun.” The musical was widely acclaimed for its clever songs that also carefully developed the play’s characters.
The names of Berlin’s songs have even surpassed his own in popularity. Not everyone recognizes the name right off, but mention the title of one of his songs and you get a different reaction.
“It’s really inspirational to hear that he didn’t even have a formal education and accomplished what he did,” said Andrew Moore, sophomore in pre-medicine. “Some of his songs are just such a part of America, it’s amazing that one man managed to compose so many.”
“We expect a crowd of all ages to come to this event because everyone knows these songs,” said Stephanie Burdette, director of communications for the KSO. “Berlin lived to be over 100 and wrote music for much of that time. You can even hear some of his works in movies like ‘Home Alone’ and ‘The Titanic.’”
As a classic composer, Irving Berlin has set a high standard for all American composers since. The concerts this weekend are perfect for a post-Valentine’s date, or even music enthusiasts just looking for a taste of America’s musical roots. Jule Styne, a friend and fellow songwriter of Berlin’s, couldn’t have summed him up — the man or his music — any better.
“Berlin has no place in American music,” he said. “Irving Berlin is American music.”
Tickets start at $27. The Orchestra will perform both Friday and Saturday with both events beginning at 8 p.m.