KEMP and UT Showcase the Best of Knoxville's Classical Music in Unlikely Venues

The concert halls of Knoxville usually get most of the attention from listeners of classical music, but there are enticing musical rewards, both esoteric and obvious, for those willing to venture elsewhere. Two events last weekend were great examples of the musical diversity that's available in Knoxville—and great examples of music-making that we should be hearing more of on a regular basis.

Depending on whom you ask, the music of the early Baroque period is either a historic curiosity, an arcane obsession, or just really interesting music. Whatever their motivations, a larger-than-expected audience filled the chapel of First Presbyterian Church on State Street on Sunday afternoon for a concert by the Knoxville Early Music Project (KEMP) titled "Sacred Music of the Italian Baroque." Now in its 20th year, KEMP specializes in music composed prior to 1750 and features performances on some period instruments. The core ensemble consists of Ashley Burell, harpsichord/organ; Maria Rist, soprano; Matt Sharp, baritone; Ann Stierli, bass viol; and Thomas Tallant, theorbo, baroque guitar, and lute. Augmenting the group for this performance were Elizabeth Farr and Mary Ann Fennell, violins; Terryl Oliver, mezzo-soprano; and John Tilson, tenor.

With works by 17th-century Italian composers Cavalli, Leonarda, Grandi, Bertali, and Marini, the concert offered a tiny sampling of the vast amount of music from the period. Removed by centuries from the original musical and religious context, the works chiefly affect modern audiences as satisfying experiences in harmony and tone that generally differ somewhat from contemporary instrumental texture.

The four singers in this performance, one to a part, epitomized the vocal qualities that were highly valued in Baroque music—agility, purity, and clarity. What was equally striking, though, was the singers' ability to blend into a tonal whole something quite different than just the sum of the parts. A highlight for the four vocalists was the setting of a psalm, Dixit Dominus, with text from Psalm 110 by Isabella Leonarda, which took on a beautifully ethereal abstract quality quite removed the text's intentions.

Also standing out on the program was Antonio Bertali's Chiacona, an example of a chaconne, a dance-like form that grew in popularity in the Baroque period from its origins in Renaissance music and that features a repeating bass line on top of which instruments perform variations on a theme. In this work, the featured instrument was the violin performed by Fennell.

Francesco Cavalli, the well known Venetian composer of operas, was represented on the program by a psalm setting, Nisi Dominus (from Psalm 127). In many ways, this work was a great example of his style of melody and vocal harmonies skillfully arranged against strings and bass continuo.

Quite unfortunately, one of the best-kept secrets in the Knoxville music scene has been the guest-artist series under the auspices of the University of Tennessee School of Music. These are free recitals and concerts offered every semester, featuring an array of guest performers and ensembles from around the country, many of them music colleagues from other schools of music and noted specialists in their fields. The unfortunate fact here is that most of these recitals are somewhat under-attended since, without an admission charge, they often fly unnoticed under the publicity radar.

One of these not-to-be-missed recitals that came last weekend to the recital hall in the Alumni Memorial Building was the appearance of baritone Kevin McMillan and pianist Gabriel Dobner, who performed Franz Schubert's Die Winterreise, a song-cycle based on 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller.

Schubert, as storyteller, treated the short poems in a number of ways that bring an amazing variety of moods and emotions: small variations in the rhythm of verses, surprise major-minor alterations, suggestive lyrical colors in the accompaniment, and bold use of dynamics.

McMillan was the real storyteller here, though, with an uncanny interpretative ability that was not just gorgeous vocal articulation, but one that seemed to rise from somewhere deep inside him and play out across his face. His eyes narrowed or opened wide, his face tensed or relaxed, all in emotional responses that were defined by careful diction and a golden lyrical baritone quality.

Listeners can keep track of UT's guest artist series through the UT music events website and, of course, the Metro Pulse calendar.