Small Ensembles Effectively Fill Out Knoxville’s Classical-Music Calendar

It’s probably too early to call Knoxville’s chamber music scene an “explosion,” but that day may be fast approaching. While my early October column covered two of the now regular series in that category—the University of Tennessee School of Music’s Faculty Chamber Series and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Concertmaster Series—the total fall season has seen a visible increase in the number of other small-ensemble performances, invigorated by philanthropic support and one notable new performance space. And that’s good news for Knoxville music audiences hungry for diversity and quality performances.

Thanks to KSO’s grant from Knoxville’s Aslan Foundation, the orchestra’s principal woodwind players—Ebonee Thomas (flute), Phylis Secrist (oboe), Gary Sperl (clarinet), Aaron Apaza (bassoon), and Jeffery Whaley (horn)—entered full-time core status this fall and will now be enjoying increased exposure and performance opportunities as the KSO Woodwind Quintet. Their inaugural performance last week on the Pellissippi State Community College campus clearly indicated a group already comfortable with one another, and one beginning to reveal the ineffable musicality that marks great ensembles.

Considering the wide variety of tone textures that can be achieved from the instruments, the woodwind quintet repertoire has had a rather spotty history. Prior to the 20th century, only a handful of composers wrote for the combination, most notably the classical-era composers Anton Reicha and Franz Danzi. However, since 1900, composers known for elegant lyricism, and many who are known quite differently, have contributed to the genre. The KSO Woodwind Quintet has just begun to tap the programming possibilities, including works that started life in other forms but have subsequently been arranged for woodwinds.

In that category of arrangements, the quintet tried out three works by Gershwin, Dvorak, and Bizet—the latter being a fascinating performance of the Petit Suite version of Jeux d’enfants (“Children’s Games”), originally written for piano four hands.

Two of the six works on the program originated as wind quintets: Dance Suite for Woodwind Quintet by Paul Valjean and Suite for Woodwind Quintet by Gunther Schuller, both contemporary works and surprisingly lyrical. Schuller, of course, is a contemporary American composer and conductor who has dabbled in modernism, embraced jazz, and championed the revival of Scott Joplin’s music. Beautifully articulated by the quintet, his suite takes on the jazz and blues idioms in a more deliberate way than even Gershwin, as well as showing influences of French composers who were influenced by American jazz.

The only downside of the evening performance was not musical at all, but environmental. The chilly Pellissippi State auditorium presented lifeless acoustics for the woodwind sonorities, made worse by audible noise from the HVAC system—and from too many unhappy small children in attendance.

Thankfully, the Powell Recital Hall in the newly opened Haslam Music Center on the UT campus is quite another matter. Its design and adjustable acoustics make it almost magical for small ensembles. In addition to the full gamut of student and faculty performances from the music school this fall, the acoustically supportive hall has been host to a number of guest artists, including a three-recital series of the complete set of 10 Beethoven violin sonatas. Featuring UT faculty pianist Kevin Class and seven violinists from the KSO, the series allowed listeners a detailed examination of Beethoven’s musical architecture and an entertaining glimpse at the individual styles of the violinists. Perhaps more importantly, though, the series represented the crossing of a collaboration threshold within the Knoxville classical music scene that certainly needs to be repeated.

The opening recital in September offered four sonatas: the Nos. 1 and 6 performed by violinist Sean Claire; the No. 8 by Sara Matayoshi; and the No. 4 by Ruth Bacon. The October recital featured the No. 3 performed by Ilia Steinschneider; the No. 10 by Claire; and the No. 7 (“Eroica”) by KSO associate concertmaster Gordon Tsai. The final recital this month offered KSO principal second violin Edward Pulgar in the Nos. 2 and 5, with the series wrapped up by KSO concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz performing the amazing No. 9 “Kreutzer” sonata.

While the Powell Recital Hall has already proved to be a success for the UT School of Music in attracting larger audiences to performances, it is naturally limited to their use. There is a lesson to be learned here—that downtown and its diverse music scene needs an acoustically excellent, 250-400 seat hall for those performances that just can’t fill the Tennessee or Bijou, and, as a result, go elsewhere. I’ll be happy to lay the first brick.

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