The Most Memorable Classical Music Performances of 2012

"Transitional, but energetically and artistically solid" sounds a bit nebulous, but, overall, the phrase pretty accurately describes the Knoxville classical music world of the past year. "Artistically solid" was illustrated by the continuing work of Knoxville Symphony Orchestra music director Lucas Richman, now in his 10th season, and James Fellenbaum, who has the dual role of KSO resident conductor and music director of the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra.

Somewhat new on the scene are KSO concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz and UT Opera Theatre director James Marvel, but each represents changes in their respective organizations that bode well for the future. A transition, too, is underway at the UT School of Music as it awaits completion of its new facility, the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center, under the school's new director, Jeffrey Pappas.

As a result, choosing the most memorable performances of 2012 becomes something of a task, if for no other reason than that the overall performance levels have risen so noticeably. But here goes.

Most Memorable Orchestral Performances

I couldn't have predicted that an all-Mozart concert by KSO under a guest conductor would be so impressive. Edward Cumming took the reins of the orchestra last January for a concert that included Mozart's Symphony No. 40. In my review of that symphony, I wrote that "Cumming's fresh take seemed to flow from carefully massaged dynamics between instrumental sections—dynamic contours and fluidity that did for Mozart what subtle tone colors would do for late-19th and early-20th-century composers."

Honorable mention: Richman returned in February for a notable chamber series concert of 20th-century works by Stravinsky (L'Histoire du Soldat and Concerto for Strings) and Schoenberg (Verklarte Nacht).

Most Memorable Concerto Solo Performances

These were relatively easy choices this year. In November, KSO concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz blew everyone's socks off when he stepped into the solo spot in Erich Korngold's Violin Concerto in D Major. From the review: "Lefkowitz's mastery of the Korngold was stunning and endlessly entertaining. Passages were perfectly phrased and punctuated, setting them apart from the orchestral textures whether the violin was singing lyrically or cutting sharp staccato edges."

Honorable mention goes to violist Hillary Herndon for her marvelous UT Symphony Orchestra performance in February of the seldom-heard Cecil Forsyth Concerto for Viola and Orchestra.

Most Memorable Small Ensemble Performances

It just isn't possible to talk about notable 2012 chamber music performances without mentioning the KSO's new Concertmaster Series, led by Lefkowitz. While the selection of the venue alone—Remedy Coffee in the Old City—deserves praise, the inaugural event itself in October delivered all that was expected. In particular, I single out the performance of the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major featuring Lefkowitz, pianist Kevin Class, and cellist Andy Bryenton.

Equally notable was April's KSO chamber performance of Chausson's Concert in D Major for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, featuring Lefkowitz (violin), Emi Kagawa (piano), and the KSO principal string quartet—Gordon Tsai and Edward Pulgar (violins), Kathryn Gawne (viola), and Andy Bryenton (cello).

Most Memorable Operatic Performance

My choice this year goes not to a leading soprano or tenor, but to baritone Scott Bearden in the role of Iago in Knoxville Opera's Otello. Bearden's "dramatic manipulation of the romantically vulnerable Otello was skillfully constructed and was complemented perfectly by a tailored vocal interpretation of villainy with a purpose."

Most Memorable Vocal Performances

My hat goes off to the very entertaining KSO performance of the Candide Suite of Leonard Bernstein in October. The singers were baritone Jeff Austin, soprano Amy Maples, tenor Dustin Peterson, mezzo-soprano Karen Nickell, and tenor Boris Van Druff.

Most Memorable Surprise Performance

While not strictly musical, the surprise award this year goes to Knoxville Opera for a couple of eye-opening—if not downright enticing—staging decisions. In February, Noah Stewart and Zulimar López-Hernández, singing the title roles in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, turned up the heat a notch in their love scene with a sculpted bare chest (his) and provocative positions (theirs). Later, in October's Die Fledermaus, a marvelous Donata Cucinotta revealed the flexibility of her character of Adele by doing onstage cartwheels and a split. The rumor that Knoxville Opera has been responsible for an increase in gym memberships is, of course, pure speculation.