The Best Classical Music Performances of 2013

While 2013 may have seen some major upheavals in the force of classical music on a national level—the ongoing management/musician difficulties of the Minnesota Orchestra and the shutdown of the New York City Opera come to mind—Knoxville's own classical-music scene has not only remained above the fray, but has shown consistent growth, in both quantity and quality. Examples of this growth: an expanding chamber-music scene with new ensembles and three functioning opera companies.

However, a true test of just how far Knoxville's classical music environment has progressed lurks on the horizon. With Lucas Richman leaving his post as Knoxville Symphony Orchestra music director following the 2014-15 season, and the search for his replacement beginning, one is left to wonder how the orchestra will confront the opportunity. Hopefully, that process will avoid irrelevant provincial intrigues and build on the progress of the last few years in ways that attract and retain excellent players—and excellent audiences.

Here, then, are my most memorable performances of 2013.

Most Memorable Orchestral Performances
This was an unusually difficult pick this year, but ultimately I could not deny the top spot to the KSO's May concert, which featured Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. In my review, I noted the season-ending energy from the orchestra combined with "the harmonic combinations, the complex rhythms, and constantly changing meter [that required] precision while maintaining the important balance of earthy, human physicality and raw tonal emotions."

A very honorable mention goes to the January KSO Chamber Classics concert, Hail Brittania, which featured works by Warlock, Britten, and Holst.

Most Memorable Concerto Solo Performances
For the second year in a row, I cannot ignore the innate musicality of the solo contributions of KSO's concertmaster, Gabriel Lefkowitz, and his performance in the J.S. Bach Violin Concerto No. 2 on the March Chamber Classics concert conducted by James Fellenbaum.

Also highly memorable were pianist Jeffrey Biegel in the world premiere of Richman's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and guitarist Ana Vidovic performing Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez on a March KSO concert with guest conductor Kelly Corcoran.

Most Memorable Small-Ensemble Performances
The KSO's Concertmaster Series has been a catalyst for Knoxville's expanding chamber-music scene. The March event offered a remarkable performance of Felix Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat Major that I described as "full of passion and emotion, with moments of intensity contrasting with those of reverie." That ensemble consisted of violinists Lefkowitz, Gordon Tsai, Edward Pulgar, and Sean Claire; violists Kathryn Gawne and Eunsoon Lee-Corliss; and cellists Andy Bryenton and Ihsan Kartal.

Honorable mention goes to October's University of Tennessee Faculty Chamber Series concert and the 18-member chamber ensemble performance of Milhaud's La Creation du Monde.

Most Memorable Solo Instrumental Performance
The Feb. 17 Rachmaninoff Remembered concert by Russian pianist Evgheny Brakhman, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Rachmaninoff's final public performance, was one of the most phenomenal events of 2013. In my review, I suggested "all that attended will remember this occasion … feeling a bit unwilling or unable to let go of a performance experience that is so rarely felt."

Of equal importance to the Knoxville scene, because of its collaborative nature, was the three-recital series of all 10 of the Beethoven violin sonatas performed by seven KSO violinists—Lefkowitz, Tsai, Pulgar, Claire, Ruth Bacon, Sara Matayoshi, and Ilia Steinschneider—and UT pianist Kevin Class.

Most Memorable Operatic Performance
Without hesitation, this year's pick goes to tenor Evan Bowers for the title role in Knoxville Opera's October production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. In my review: "[H]is vocal performance was clean and amazingly attractive throughout, with a tenor's tonal quality, but one wrapped in baritone-like strength, and offering what seemed to be a beautifully effortless high end."

Most Memorable Vocal Performances
Mezzo-soprano and UT School of Music grad student Lauren Lyles opened eyes and ears as a soloist in the KSO/Church Street Master Arts Series performance of Haydn's Theresienmesse—and later made a big impression as Rosina in UT Opera Theatre's The Barber of Seville.

Most Memorable Surprise Performance
Although not of flesh and blood, UT's new Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall is, nonetheless, 2013's most surprising performer. This acoustically clean, 400-seat venue has—virtually overnight—changed the complexion of the school's offerings and set an example for what Knoxville's future music halls should aspire to.