On any ordinary evening, at any ordinary concert of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the house lights would begin to dim and Concertmaster Mark Zelmanovich would stroll on stage, violin in hand, to the traditional bit of applause. As always, he would acknowledge that applause with a polite bow and stand at his first-chair violin position as the orchestra tuned. Maestro Lucas Richman would then enter and warmly shake the concertmaster's hand as the symbolic gesture of greeting to the entire orchestra. Next week's Masterworks concerts of the KSO, however, will be anything but ordinary for Zelmanovich—and the applause will be anything but traditional, I suspect—for those concerts will officially honor him as he begins the second half of his 24th—and final—season as concertmaster of the KSO.
The end of an era, though, is not in any way the end of a career. Zelmanovich is quite firm in asserting that while he is stepping down as concertmaster and as a KSO violinist, he is most definitely not retiring from music.
"I started playing in orchestras in 1960," he says. "That's 50 years in orchestras, under great conductors—that's a long career. But I'm not retiring. I'm just switching priorities."
And those new priorities—every bit as important—include ensemble playing, summers with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in western New York state, his continuing faculty position at the University of Tennessee School of Music, and his mentoring of private students. In addition, he will hold the never-before-bestowed title of KSO "Concertmaster Emeritus" at the end of the current season.
Zelmanovich grew up in the culturally rich and historic western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi (Chernovitz). In his hometown, often called "Little Vienna" due to the influences of the Austro-Hungarian empire of the 18th and 19th centuries, he began studying violin at the age of 6. As a teenager, he began performing in orchestras and later took music conservatory degrees in Moscow. In 1972, Zelmanovich moved to Israel to join the Israel Philharmonic, a position he would hold for 14 years. That orchestra's extensive touring schedule took him all over the world and eventually brought him in contact with Kirk Trevor, who had become music director of the KSO in 1985. Through that contact, Zelmanovich emigrated to the United States and settled in Knoxville to begin his 24-year stint as KSO concertmaster and as a UT violin faculty member.
That first season of 1986-87 proved to be a threshold year for the KSO. With a new conductor and a new concertmaster, the orchestra ventured into new and challenging territory. Rudy Ennis, program annotator for the KSO, wrote: "Mark's leadership and performance skills gave Conductor Kirk Trevor the confidence to schedule an entire Chamber Classics Series concert of KSO premieres.... KSO audiences quickly knew, and appreciated, what the orchestra had acquired with its new concertmaster."
In those 24 years of service, Zelmanovich has seen the inevitable conductorship changes as well as the natural turnover of orchestra personnel. What has amazed and gratified him is how much the orchestra has grown in stature and performance ability over that time.
"Since the '90s, and particularly over the last few years, the KSO has become a really, really great orchestra for Knoxville," he says. "And it's full of great musicians.... They've been wonderful colleagues."
And those musicians return the compliment.
"Mark is one of the finest teachers I've ever seen," says Carol Zinavage, KSO's principal keyboardist. "I have accompanied many of his students, and his obvious love of music shines through everything he says and does—he dances, he sings, he makes faces to indicate laughing and crying and every emotion in between."
The programming of next week's congratulatory concert is particularly appropriate in celebrating one who has devoted his life to the violin and to music. Guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine will join Zelmanovich, Richman, and the KSO for Brahms Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op.77, one of the great virtuoso works for violin.
"She's just an incredible violinist," Zelmanovich says of Barton Pine. "And she's an incredible person. The concerto needs someone with a deep, deep understanding of Brahms. And she has it."
And in May, the KSO Chamber series will feature Zelmanovich as violin soloist in Tchaikovsky's hauntingly poignant Meditation. That same concert will offer Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony.
A farewell? I wouldn't bet on it.