Small Ensembles Find a Place in Knoxville's Classical-Music Scene

When I surveyed the growth and health of the Knoxville classical music scene in Metro Pulse last fall, I focused, out of necessity, on the broad topic, which for most people means the historically popular, large-ensemble performances—orchestral music and opera. Oddly, though, a more accurate gauge of the true depth of a classical music scene probably lies elsewhere—in the quantity and quality of chamber music and small-ensemble performances that a city will support. While there is a vast territory of music in the small-ensemble realm, what's needed are ample audiences eager to explore it, to savor the subtleties of intimate performances, and to enjoy the socio-musical experience.

When Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz proposed a chamber-music series last year, to be performed by himself and his string colleagues from the orchestra, he and the orchestra's management probably had little idea what type and size of audience might be attracted to it. They obviously shouldn't have worried. The performances in the back room of Remedy Coffee produced overflow crowds. And this season's three pairs of concerts, the first of which took place last week, have only overflow seating still available. A fourth event is scheduled for the Knoxville Museum of Art in May.

For last week's Concertmaster Series, Lefkowitz was joined by University of Tennessee School of Music faculty pianist Kevin Class and KSO's principal cellist, Andy Bryenton. The three works on the program—a movement of Kodály's Duo for Violin and Cello, Richard Strauss' Sonata for Violin and Piano, and Schubert's Piano Trio in B-flat—had a reverse historical arc of sorts. While I fully expected an old favorite, the Schubert trio, to be a solid cornerstone of the evening (and it was), it was the Strauss sonata that turned out to be the happiest surprise.

As Strauss' last significant piece of chamber music, the violin sonata was written at a time when the composer had begun exploring the symphonic tone poem—in fact, coming after Aus Italien and just before Don Juan. Lefkowitz and Class found a lot of depth and excitement in Strauss' synthesis of Schubertian lyricism and hints of complex, symphonic-like textures.

Over on the University of Tennessee campus, the School of Music's Faculty Chamber Series, long known for its diverse small-ensemble programs, was settling into its new home last Sunday in the Powell Recital Hall in the new Haslam Music Center after several years of borrowed venues. To celebrate the occasion, the group offered the surprisingly large audience five works, culminating in a performance of Darius Milhaud's jazz-infused ballet score from 1923, La Creation du Monde. Kevin Class—arguably the busiest man in Knoxville—conducted the 18-member chamber ensemble.

Interestingly, the Milhaud precedes George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue by a couple of years, but the similarities and differences were obvious. Milhaud's raw, earthy edge feels more like the jazz he probably would have heard during his 1922 visits to Harlem.

The school's three newest performance faculty members played big roles in Sunday's concert. Saxophonist Allison Adams and hornist Katie Johnson joined bassoonist Keith McClelland for David Amram's Trio for Tenor Saxophone, Horn, and Bassoon. Clarinetist Victor Chavez had a busy afternoon, pairing first with flutist Shelley Binder in Robert Muczynski's Duos for Flute and Clarinet—and later with soprano Cecily Nall and pianist Bernadette Lo in a gorgeous performance of Franz Schubert's lied "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen." Pianists Fay Adams and David Northington opened with the "piano four hands" Gottschalk arrangement of the William Tell Overture.

The Powell Recital Hall is also the site of an interesting chamber-music collaboration taking place between the UT School of Music and seven KSO violinists in performances of the 10 Beethoven violin sonatas. The first of three recitals took place last month; the second an third are scheduled for Oct. 28 and Nov. 18.

And the KSO has just announced a "Q-Series," free recitals that will feature the KSO Woodwind Quintet and the Principal Quartet. These are scheduled for Nov. 21, Jan. 23, and March 25 at a variety of venues.

This apparent awakening interest in chamber-sized performances raises the question: Where? Knoxville, and downtown specifically, for all its wonderful larger music spaces, seems to be crying out for comfortable, acoustically supportive spaces for small-ensemble performances and smaller audiences. Based on what we are seeing, though, it seems likely that the phrase "if you build it, they will come" now applies to chamber music in Knoxville.