Adventurous Choices: With a Sizable Grant from Aslan Foundation, KSO Steps up With a Diverse Schedule, Lower Ticket Prices

Tracking the health of American orchestras can be a painful task these days given the all-too-frequent news accounts of music organization bankruptcies, labor disputes, and various forms of financial distress. In Minneapolis, for example, the Minnesota Orchestra's musicians are in the 11th month of a management lockout, with their fall season and some high-profile Carnegie Hall concerts in jeopardy. Closer to home, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra is at last extricating itself from a year-long crisis that involved financial shortfalls, a threatened foreclosure of its Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and serious contract negotiations with its musicians.

In contrast, our own Knoxville Symphony Orchestra appears to have the support that many cities find elusive, with the KSO once again achieving a balanced budget in its last fiscal year. Admittedly, the scale of KSO's operation is somewhat smaller than the aforementioned ones—smaller musician payrolls and smaller operational overheads. Nevertheless, the orchestra has apparently kept its head while others were losing theirs, at the same time managing improvements in performance quality and growing its substantial local education programs.

Whether large organization or small, big city or not, one fact is universal—an orchestra's ticket sales alone do not cover its operating expenses. To that end, a major boost for the KSO came in August with the announcement of a $1 million grant from Knoxville's Aslan Foundation. The KSO will be using the funds, starting immediately, to address several needs. The five principal woodwind players—flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn—will be moved from a tenured per-service pay status to full-time salaried positions, matching the situation that the core string players currently enjoy.

"An added benefit to this new arrangement is that these incredibly talented musicians are more likely to remain with the KSO because they can now afford to do so without having to look elsewhere for employment," says KSO music director Lucas Richman.

In addition—and certainly important for audiences—the grant will also allow the lowest-priced tickets for all performances to be an easily affordable $15.

With price no longer necessarily an issue for the three main series—Masterworks at the Tennessee Theatre, Chamber Classics at the Bijou, and the Concertmaster Series at Remedy Coffee—audiences will find the 2013-14 season one that features a broad and diverse schedule rather than a reliance on often-performed warhorses. And they'll see some truly exciting and compelling soloists instead of budget-busting splurges on big-fee celebrity names.

Whether a splurge or not, the notable Eroica Trio joins the orchestra for the season-opener next week for Beethoven's Triple Concerto in C Major—a work the all-female trio (Erika Nickrenz, piano; Sara Parkins, violin; Sara Sant'Ambrogio, cello) has certainly become associated with. The remainder of the program is music-drama derived: the upbeat Overture to Donna Diana by Emil von Reznicek, the Háry János Suite of Zoltán Kodály, and Richard Wagner's Overture to Rienzi.

Richman has sprinkled the season with a number of adventurous choices, including the world premiere of his own piano concerto, In Truth, with pianist Jeffrey Biegel, on the October Masterworks. That concert also features works by Barber, Grofe, and Gershwin.

Two all-Mozart concerts are on the season's schedule. The November Masterworks concert features violinist Lara St. John in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4, while January's Chamber Classics concert has KSO principal flute Ebonee Thomas performing the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in G.

University of Tennessee faculty pianist David Brunell will be featured on November's Chamber Classics, performing Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1. Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite and Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 1 fill out this intriguing Sunday afternoon.

A rare listening opportunity comes with February's Choral Spectacular, a concert that will offer the epic Sacred Service by Ernest Bloch, featuring baritone Nmon Ford and choral ensembles from the UT School of Music.

Baroque lovers—and Knoxville seems to be filled with them—should circle next March on their calendars. The orchestra will perform all six of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti over two evenings of Masterworks concerts led by KSO resident conductor James Fellenbaum. Fellenbaum will also conduct that month's all-Baroque Chamber Classics concert of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi.

The truly engaging Concertmaster series of chamber music, programmed by concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz and performed with his colleagues from the orchestra, returns for its second season at Remedy Coffee in October, January, and March. A fourth event has been added in May 2014 at the Knoxville Museum of Art in conjunction with the opening of a major installation by glass artist Richard Jolley.