KSO and UT Try Out New Performance Spaces for a Pair of Chamber Concerts

With new musical journeys in mind, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and the University of Tennessee School of Music departed the beaten path to alternative venues for their small-ensemble concerts—Remedy Coffee in the Old City and the nave of Church Street United Methodist, respectively—that invited listeners to explore the performance intimacy of chamber music, albeit in radically contrasting acoustic environments.

The KSO’s pair of Wednesday and Thursday concerts inaugurated a new chamber-music series designed by its concertmaster, Gabriel Lefkowitz, and performed by him and colleagues in the back room of Remedy Coffee. The room, a long but skinny space that seats roughly 100, placed audience members within a few feet of the performers, ideal in most ways for a chamber-music experience.

This first of three concerts in the series, which continues in January and March, was programmed rather modestly by Lefkowitz in terms of scale, but was anything but modest, as it turned out, in terms of performances. The first half of the program consisted of two works for Lefkowitz on violin and pianist Kevin Class: Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane and Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major. On the second half, Lefkowitz and Class were joined by cellist Andy Bryenton for the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major.

Tzigane—the French form of the general European term for “gypsy”—is a high-energy 10-minute work that opens with an extended solo violin passage careening through virtuosic territory with intensely introspective statements of technique. As the solo passage ends and the piano enters, the work turns a bit illustrative, becoming reflective of gypsy life. The momentum and frenzy of gypsy dance builds to passionate levels until it virtually explodes in the conclusion.

Prokofiev’s 1943 work was a change in direction for Lefkowitz and Class, to softer melodies and elongated phrases oozing elegance, punctuated by moments of wry humor and breathless pace. The final allegro con brio movement was a brilliant romp of power and passion.

In the Brahms Piano Trio, the three players demonstrated what true ensemble playing is all about, transparently feeding on each other’s cues and emotions, and pulling each other along. The warmth of Bryenton’s cello tone luxuriated in the room of brick and wood, particularly in the adagio movement. This drew the listener closer while the violin soared in contrast, all perfectly balanced.

The importance of this new KSO series to Knoxville’s music scene simply cannot be overstated. The exploration of alternative spaces for music and the showcasing of Knoxville’s musicians in intimate settings are ideas that have been long overdue.

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The University of Tennessee’s Faculty Chamber Series, one year away from its new recital hall in the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center currently under construction, has moved this season to a different kind of chamber: the beautiful, voluminous nave of downtown’s Church Street United Methodist Church. Three works were offered on last Sunday’s afternoon concert: Dances for Three by American composer Peter Schickele, Suite Americana No. 1 for Brass Quintet by Enrique Crespo, and the Brahms Trio in E-Flat Major for horn, violin, and piano.

The Schickele work for two clarinets and bassoon was nicely performed by clarinetists RoAnn Romines and Greg Tardy with bassoonist Keith McClelland. The Crespo brass quintet, five energetic movements evoking suggestions of music of the Americas from jazz to South American styles, was performed by the solid faculty brass quintet: Cathy Leach and Emily Whildin (trumpets), Karl Kramer (horn), Daniel Cloutier (trombone), and Sande MacMorran (tuba).

With only a brief pause after the Crespo workout, Kramer admirably returned to join violinist Miroslav Hristov and pianist Kevin Class for Brahms’ fantastic Trio in E-Flat. Although marvelously performed, it was in this piece that the church’s reverberative qualities began to be a factor. The horn and piano, like the wind and brass instruments in the previous works, soared ethereally in the space, while the violin sound arrived at the listener quite directionally. The result was somewhat muddied textures. Performance-wise, though, the trio connected brilliantly, with all the push and pull of tempos, the impressions of rustic life made palpable by the horn, and the energetic optimism that one expects.

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