One might think that coming up with a year's best list in classical music performances in Knoxville would be easy. Guess again. With new music, traditional classical, premieres, great local performers, and fantastic guest artists, even deciding on the categories was fraught with difficulty. And, notes and reviews aside, time invariably has a way of smoothing over unpleasant or embarrassing musical moments as well as tempering the heat of immediate enthusiasm for a particular performance. So instead of a "best" list, I'll just call this my list of "memorable" performances and leave it at that—still very subjective nonetheless.
Most Memorable Orchestral Performances
With so much to choose from, I was barely able to narrow the selections down to three—all from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. First, from last May, was Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor. I reported that Maestro Lucas Richman gave the work "the careful storyteller's approach" without getting lost in seemingly directionless Mahler textures. Second, Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony in January started off the Mendelssohn bicentennial year with a bang. In a nice comparison between large and not-so-large forces, the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra delightfully reprised the work in March. And last, this fall's Chamber series concert, conducted by James Fellenbaum, of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, along with string serenades by Elgar and Suk, really enveloped the listener in stunningly subtle and satisfying acoustic detail and warmth.
Most Memorable Small Ensemble Performances
Without doubt, the quartet of Miroslav Hristov (violin), Gary Sperl (clarinet), Wesley Baldwin (cello), and Cindy Hicks (harp) was a standout in their Music Among Friends this fall at Church of the Ascension. In trio combinations of the four excellent players, they offered works by Bochsa, Haydn, Messiaen, Saint-Saëns, and Ibert.
Earlier in May, the KSO's chamber series provided a luscious example of ensemble playing in Schubert's "Cello" Quintet with Edward Pulgar and Sean Claire (violins), Kathryn Gawne (viola), and Andy Bryenton and Ildar Khuziakmetov (cellos).
Most Memorable Featured Soloists
Having never heard University of Tennessee piano faculty member David Brunell in performance, I admit I was positively surprised by his riveting performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor with the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra in October. Equally impressive was guest pianist Alexander Ghindin, who performed the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major with the KSO in May. In my Metro Pulse review, I confessed to being stunned by Ghindin's sheer power and accuracy. Ghindin makes a return visit to Knoxville for the Young Pianist Series concert coming up in January.
Most Memorable Choral Performances
Here, I'll have to go with two performances on either end of 2009: the Knoxville Chamber Chorale's solid performance of Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes with the KSO last February and the UT Chamber Singers holiday concert performance of Lauridsen's O magnum mysterium.
Most Memorable Surprise From a Non-Featured Soloist
In orchestras where wonderful solos are the rule rather than the exception, it's my own fault I was surprised—I really should have known better. In the Knoxville Choral Society's performance of Handel's Messiah, Sarah Chumney lit up the Tennessee Theatre with a gorgeous, crystalline trumpet obbligato in the bass aria "The Trumpet Shall Sound."
Most Memorable Vocal Performances
These were undoubtedly the hardest choices to make, as there were both a number of local vocalists and operatic performers, as well as visiting guest artists. But since I had to choose, I picked two local singers: Jennifer Barnett and Rebekkah Hilgraves.
Barnett performed two sets of American songs, Bowles' Blue Mountain Ballads and Bolcom's Cabaret Songs, with Lucas Richman on piano, for a KSCO concert of American music last spring. Her diction and storytelling ability were impeccable. Hilgraves gave a beautifully wrenching "Una macchia, e qui tutt'ora" from Verdi's Macbeth, part of the TVUUC program Sounds and Sweet Airs.
Next season will be the 75th anniversary of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Couple this substantial milestone with the increasingly impressive performances from other orchestras and ensembles in the area—both professional and student—and I expect next year's list will be horrifically difficult to compile. And I'll enjoy every minute of it.