By my reckoning, the number of officially announced chamber-music performances in Knoxville has roughly doubled in the last five years.
There are several reasons behind this growth: new facilities, new sources of funding, and increased enthusiasm from a number of new and continuing participants. The presence of the new Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall has certainly been a factor for the University of Tennessee School of Music's public offerings. Grants from the Aslan Foundation to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra also have supported their Chamber Classics series and new small-ensemble programs. At the same time, increased audience turnout has surprised many, illuminating the fact that new and hungry listeners are out there, if they can only be reached and captivated in a cultural world full of distractions.
Seemingly immune to distractions over the years has been one of the more intriguing chamber music events in Knoxville—the ongoing UT faculty chamber-music series. The series, now comfortably settled into its new home in the Powell Recital Hall, has been nothing if not eclectic in its programming and enticing in its performances. This Sunday's program continues the series' history of eclecticism with faculty performances that range from a string duo to a jazz ensemble, with some notable woodwind pieces in between.
Series coordinator and violist Hillary Herndon opens the program, joined by colleague and cellist Wesley Baldwin for Norwegian composer Johann Halvorsen's Passacaglia in G minor on a Theme of George Frideric Handel.
"The Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia is commonly played by violinists and violists as a show piece or encore," Herndon says. "There is also a version for violin and cello. This performance, however, will be a unique arrangement for viola and cello. It is a perennial crowd favorite."
Charles Loeffler was a German-born American violinist and composer (1861-1935) who settled in Massachusetts and was a concertmaster with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for over 20 years. His later life was devoted to teaching and composition, with a musical taste both refined and eclectic, ranging from chamber music to later works for jazz band. His stylistic influences were substantially French, particularly those of the French symbolists. He will be represented on this concert by his 1902 Ballade Carnavalesque for flute, oboe, alto saxophone, bassoon and piano. The performers will be Shelley Binder (flute), Phylis Secrist (oboe), Allison Adams (saxophone), Keith McClelland (bassoon), and Fay Adams (piano).
Francis Poulenc's Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quintet, composed in 1932 and revised in 1939, is one of the those works that, once heard, is impossible to forget. It succeeds at being humorous, satiric, and serious at the same time, all the while jazzy yet poetically lyrical. In this performance, pianist Fay Adams will be joined by a quintet of flutist Binder, oboist Secrist, bassoonist McClelland, and new UT faculty members Victor Chavez (clarinet) and Katie Johnson (horn).
The Faculty Chamber Series program will conclude with selections to be announced from the stage, performed by the UT Faculty Jazz Ensemble.
If there had been any apprehensions about how Bach's Brandenburg Concerti and their varied featured solo instrumentation would work in the Tennessee Theatre, those fears evaporated quickly last weekend with two spectacular performances by conductor James Fellenbaum and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. The genius and charm of J.S. Bach came through brilliantly in all six of the concerti performances, split over the Thursday and Friday evenings.
The Nos. 4 and 5, having had previous performances on the Chamber Classics series at the Bijou this month, were particularly finessed and gorgeously balanced. The performance of the No. 4 (G Major) on Thursday night was simply sublime, with KSO's two flutists, Ebonee Thomas and Jill Bartine, and KSO concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz in the solo spots. The No. 5 featured the amazing harpsichord cadenza performed by guest Michael Unger.
The No. 2 in F Major was saved for last, and thankfully so. The trumpet work by guest Ryan Beach would have been impossible to follow, as would have been the performances by the other soloists: Thomas (flute), Lefkowitz (violin), and Phylis Secrist (oboe).
Although it is understandably difficult for programmers to juxtapose Baroque music against 19th-century composers on the same concert, the enthusiasm of both performers and audience for Baroque music, particularly Bach, seems to be obvious. Finding a way to get more of that in front of Knoxville audiences should be a pleasant task for everyone.