Two Knoxville Organizations Demonstrate America's Unheralded Choral Traditions

In its January 2011 issue, the classical-music magazine Gramophone ran an article ranking the world's best choral organizations. The U.K.-based magazine is British- and Eurocentric, but one fact stood out—not a single U.S. group was on the list. While there are, most assuredly, elite U.S. choirs that probably should have been included—Chanticleer, among several, comes to mind—one point was inescapable. The U.S. simply does not have the cultural choral tradition that still exists in England and on the continent that supports and maintains professional choral ensembles with uncompromising standards.

Yet, in the denser population centers of the U.S., choral music abounds in the semiprofessional world of the better church-based choirs. One such organization in Knoxville is the Friends of Music and the Arts, a program of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension. Under the leadership of music director Jim Garvey, FOMA's season includes not only local musicians and the Choirs of Ascension in concerts but also bookings of notable soloists and ensembles, such as the King's Singers, the Paul Winter Consort, and, this season, Chanticleer.

This month brings a major choral work to FOMA's schedule—Mozart's Requiem, K. 626. The work has broad dramatic and musical appeal even without the controversy and myths that surrounds its creation. Although the play and the subsequent motion picture Amadeus fictionalized events in Mozart's life and premature death, it was true that the composer was attempting to complete the work's commission at the time of his death, but did not. This, of course, created a scholarly industry in the music world free to speculate on Mozart's intentions.

This Sunday's performance will use a completed version of the mass that has commonly been the accepted performance version since Mozart's death. Mozart's widow, eager to collect the final payment for the work, employed Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a Mozart pupil familiar with the work, to complete it. In the last 50 years, though, a number of musicologists have produced alternative performance versions with orchestration, each with specific scholarship documentation to back up their opinions. A quite different version by Richard Maunder has had several notable recordings, including one by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music.

The work, based on the orchestration that Mozart began, is scored for an orchestra of two horns, two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, strings, and basso continuo with soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass soloists with a mixed choir. Garvey's orchestra is drawn from local musicians, with soloists Catherine Greer, Bonnie Wallis, Andrew Morehead, and David Reath taken from the Ascension choir.

The 5 p.m. performance at Church of the Ascension is free.


Encouraging young classical-music performers has been one of the goals of another of Knoxville's choral organizations—the Knoxville Choral Society. The society has traditionally devoted its March event to a recognition ceremony for the winners of its annual Young Classical Musicians competition. Last weekend's concert at the Knoxville Convention Center recognized winners in three categories and featured their performances: violinist Mitchell N. Cloutier, vocalist Hannah Amelia Brown, and pianist Mayuri F. Miyashita.

Filling out the evening's event was a performance by KCS of Franz Schubert's Mass in G (D. 167) for soloists, string orchestra, and organ—a work famous today but unpublished and virtually unknown during the composer's lifetime. Soloists drawn from the society's ranks were soprano Karen Cook, tenor Matt Cook, and bass David Glover.

While the KCS, at more than 150 singers, displayed its usual excellent choral diction, the performance of the Schubert mass itself, conducted by director Eric Thorson, lacked much of the needed crispness and drama, and, overall, lacked dynamic energy.

In contrast, the "Sanctus et Benedictus" section was a bit lighter and more emotionally charged, thanks to the soprano solo that gives way to the tenor and bass alterations of the melody. The final "dona nobis pacem" was nicely serene.

The Knoxville Chamber Chorale, a subset of the larger KCS, opened the evening with four works, including a motet by Felix Mendelssohn, "Jauchzet den Herrn, alle Welt"; a setting of Psalm 148 by Gustav Holst; and an energetic performance of a contemporary spiritual by Robert L. Morris, founder of the Twin Cities' Leigh Morris Chorale.