At this time last year, I boldly predicted that 2010 would prove to be a very exciting and intriguing year for classical music in Knoxville. As it turned out, that would be every bit of an understatement. It was a year of extraordinary performances, some wonderful artistic combinations, and giant steps taken in pushing the classical-music scene forward through innovative programming and music education. Here, then, are my choices—subjective of course—for the most memorable performances of 2010.
Most Memorable Orchestral Performances
Once again, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra gets three nods, but each for different reasons. First, in September, KSO joined the Clarence Brown Theatre in a co-production of Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, with incidental music of Mozart performed onstage by the orchestra conducted by Maestro Lucas Richman. The choice of music and the tightly integrated performance were simply brilliant. Second, January's KSO chamber series concert featured a stunningly subtle performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 4. And last: At November's 75th anniversary concert, Janacek's Sinfonietta was a feast of instrumental textures that remained a pleasant memory for days.
Most Memorable Small Ensemble Performances
This category proved to be a problem this year, not necessarily for the lack of performances in the Knoxville area, but for the fact that many fly under the publicity radar. Without hesitation, my top pick is the KSO Principal Quartet and their performance of Bela Bartok's String Quartet No. 3 from April. On that same KSO chamber series concert were equally impressive performances of the Mozart String Quintet, K. 406, and the Brahms String Quartet No. 1. The KSO Principal Quartet consisted of Miroslav Hristov and Edward Pulgar, violins; Kathryn Gawne, viola; and Andy Bryenton, cello.
A category thumbs-up also goes to the University of Tennessee School of Music faculty chamber series for their eclectic programming choices and unswerving dedication to chamber music performance.
Most Memorable Featured Soloists
In a year filled with some thrilling solo performances, two seemed to leap to the top of the list. The pianist Adam Golka appeared with KSO in March, performing Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. In my review, I wrote that Golka had "a remarkably introspective connection to the work and a refreshingly audacious interpretation." I was also thrilled with the pianist Ying Feng, who performed Franz Liszt's Totentanz with the UT Symphony as part of their "Halloween Spook-tacular."
Most Memorable Operatic Performances
I have always been a big admirer of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, yet Knoxville Opera's production starring the incredible coloratura soprano Rachele Gilmore exceeded my wildest expectations. From my review: "Gilmore has what sopranos dream of: clear-as-a-bell, seemingly effortless high notes, and vocal flexibility with power throughout her range." Gilmore returns to Knoxville Opera for April's production of Bellini's I Puritani. At the other end of the vocal scale, bass Kevin Burdette, a Knoxville native, gave audiences a delightfully naughty and comedic Bartolo in Knoxville Opera's The Barber of Seville.
Most Memorable Vocal Performances
Hands down, this category belonged to soprano Denisha Ballew and baritone Michael Rodgers, who were sensational in KSO's October concert version of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
Most Memorable Choral Performances
April saw a couple of outstanding choral performances. At the top of the list is the UT Chamber Singers and Concert Choir offering of Maurice Durufle's stunning Requiem, conducted by Angela Batey. Kudos also go to another Requiem—Mozart's Requiem, performed by the Knoxville Choral Society and KSO.
Most Memorable Surprise (and Contribution) From a Performer
Part of this surprise was that it came not from an instrumental player, but from a conductor—Maestro James Fellenbaum, music director of the UT Symphony. In the symphony's "Halloween Spook-tacular," Fellenbaum had the audience roaring with costume changes, fright wigs, and battles with a recalcitrant Phantom of the Opera. The frivolity was merely a mask, though, for some serious music-making, as evidenced by movements from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique and the Liszt Totentanz with pianist Ying Feng, mentioned above. Halloween performances aside, Fellenbaum's consistently fresh and innovative approach to programming and his insistence on performance excellence have made the UT Symphony a major contributor to Knoxville's classical music scene. In addition to his faculty position, Fellenbaum is the resident conductor of KSO and music director of the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra.
But what of 2011? Will it rival or exceed 2010 for exceptional performances? I, for one, am certainly not betting against it.
CORRECTION: Rachele Gilmore's appearance in Knoxville Opera's I Puritani is scheduled for April, not February, as originally reported.