It wasn't that long ago—six years, maybe—that I worried quite a bit about the amount and variety of classical music performances in Knoxville. While I still hold out hope for some new music venues, new local ensembles, and more booking of nationally known groups, the Knoxville classical music scene itself has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of visibility, joining other music genres in what is a recognizably diverse local music climate. Two of the key players, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and the University of Tennessee School of Music, probably had similar concerns as I did back then, for their contributions have increased, certainly in visibility, spurred on by audiences showing up in substantial numbers.
The UT School of Music, still spread out a bit by geography until the opening of their new facility next fall, has kept their own eclectic Faculty Chamber Music Series intact, albeit with two concerts this year instead of three, and in borrowed venues. This season has found them in the gothic revival splendor of the Church Street United Methodist Church, a voluminous nave which offers acoustics that can be both supportive and challenging—for performers and audience.
Mozart opens the UT faculty series on Sunday afternoon with the Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, K. 498. The trio has traditionally carried the subtitle "Kegelstatt," which translates to "a skittles alley," skittles being a type of pin bowling. While the skittles reference may actually have been attached by a publisher in error, Mozart was extremely fond of the game, as was his friend, the clarinetist Anton Stadler, for whom the piece was written. Nevertheless, expecting to bowl over the audience will be Gary Sperl, clarinet; Hillary Herndon, viola; and David Northington, piano.
One of the stalwarts of the Faculty Chamber Music concerts over the past few years has been the Faculty Brass Quintet. This year, UT School of Music faculty hornist Karl Kramer is providing his own composition, 15 Years of Clean Living for Brass Quintet, for himself and his fellow brass players. The quintet consists of Cathy Leach and Emily Whildin, trumpets; Karl Kramer, horn; Daniel Cloutier, trombone; and Sande MacMorran, tuba.
Shifting directions, contemporary composer George Crumb has suggested that flute and drum are "those instruments which most powerfully evoke the voice of nature." His An Idyll for the Misbegotten, Images III pairs flutist Shelley Binder with percussion, performed by Andrew Bliss, Logan Ball, and Kevin Hanrahan.
In a bit of a twist, closing out the afternoon will be the brilliant first and last movements of Robert Schumann's Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44, with Mark Zelmanovich and Miroslav Hristov, violins; Hillary Herndon, viola; Wesley Baldwin, cello; and David Brunell, piano.
The KSO's new series this season, the three event Concertmaster Series under the programming and leadership of concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz, has had no trouble attracting an enthusiastic following and selling out its Remedy Coffee location in the Old City. The Thursday night performances were completely sold out to subscribers shortly after being offered, and the Wednesday night seats have been snapped up eagerly as well. The tickets have been a bargain at $15, but those interested in even less expensive overflow tickets for this season's third and final performance should call the KSO office at 865-291-3310.
The opening half of this concert may seem more like a group of encores, as Lefkowitz and pianist Kevin Class will explore a number of energetic duos with virtuosic threads: Franz Schubert's The Bee, Manuel Ponce's Estrellita, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Daisies, and Antonio Bazzini's Round of the Goblins.
Having started with dessert, Lefkowitz serves up the entrée on the second half: Felix Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat Major, op. 20. This is the work of the 16-year-old Mendelssohn, whose early show of talent far exceeded that of the precocious Mozart and Schubert. In instrumentation, the Octet is a double string quartet; but, unlike other well known octets, the composer treated the work as a unique ensemble in the orchestral sense of participation, as well as in instrumental colors and textures.
The octet ensemble, drawn from the leading chairs in the KSO, consists of violinists Lefkowitz, Gordon Tsai, Edward Pulgar, and Sean Claire; violas Kathryn Gawne and Eunsoon Lee-Corliss; and cellos Andy Bryenton and Ihsan Kartal.