KSO’s Principal Quartet Illustrates the Growing Popularity of Chamber Music

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In last week’s column, I made the statement that “the number of officially announced chamber-music performances in Knoxville has roughly doubled in the last five years.” I stand by that assertion—the numbers speak for themselves. However, even for those who haven’t counted, there is an unconscious perception that the small-ensemble scene has proliferated, and that is perhaps even more important than raw numbers. The popularity of new series, such as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Concertmaster Series, is a perfect illustration that performance quality and audience enthusiasm are there now in abundance, even if marketing hasn’t been. Hopefully, the days of Knoxville’s small ensembles being treated as curious appendages of the large ensembles, useful only for educational or peripheral goals, are coming to a close.

Heading the list of those ensembles that deserve a lot more general audience exposure is the KSO’s Principal Quartet. Consisting of violinists Gordon Tsai and Edward Pulgar, violist Kathryn Gawne, and cellist Andy Bryenton, the group is now in their third year together—a togetherness that is richly evident. While Sunday’s Chamber Classics concert is devoted to them, as it has been in past Aprils, they have also been a part of the ensembles for Gabriel Lefkowitz’s Concertmaster Series, and promise to have an even higher visibility next season with pairings with the KSO’s Woodwind Quintet.

Goethe likened the string quartet form to “listening to four sensible people conversing.” Composers since Goethe’s time have gravitated to the combination for its tonal purity and the communication that flows because and in spite of the natural limitations of four string instruments. There is little doubt that Goethe had in mind the work of his contemporary Joseph Haydn, who gave the string-quartet form the importance as a genre it has maintained through the years. Sunday’s concert opens with one of Haydn’s most famous and likable quartets, the Opus 64, No. 5, called the “Lark.”

Had the string quartet remained solely a product of Haydn’s Classical period, our opinion of them might be entirely different. However, the genre has been embraced by serious composers up to today—composers as diverse in their musical outlook as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Chick Corea, and Jennifer Higdon. 20th-century Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) tackled them as well, with relish, leaving us with 17 of them and a sketch for another. He’s represented on this concert by his 1946 String Quartet No. 1, revised from his Suite Graciosa of 30 years earlier. The work is in six movements, each having a youthful, romantic bias that explodes with a charming combination of descriptive, folksy storytelling and tonal variety. While Villa-Lobos is best known today for his Bachianas Brasileiras, a series of nine suites for various combinations of instruments and voices, his formative connection to Haydn—and Haydn’s sense of humor—through his string quartets is unmistakable.

Sunday’s concert concludes with one of the best-known of the 15 string quartets of Franz Schubert, the String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, subtitled “Death and the Maiden.” The subtitle is drawn from the fact that the second movement is a set of variations on his own 1817 song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” with text taken from a poem by Matthias Claudius. Like many works with strong, attractive swings of emotion and dynamics, themes from the quartet have been used in other media for a variety of intentions; a 1991 play of the same name by Ariel Dorfman was adapted for film by Roman Polanski in 1994 using passages from the quartet.

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If one needed another example of the mind-boggling diversity of Knoxville’s music scene, it was last weekend. At the same time of the miraculous and satisfying three days of Big Ears in downtown (and the Knoxville Marathon), music events were popping up all over, including on the University of Tennessee campus. Last Sunday’s UT School of Music Faculty Chamber Series concert, previewed in last week’s column, saw a marvelous performance of the Francis Poulenc Sextet, followed immediately by the UT Faculty Jazz Ensemble (drummer Keith Brown, bassist Rusty Holloway, guitarist Mark Boling, and saxophonist Greg Tardy) in two tunes by Thelonious Monk. But it is festival time, after all—Rhythm N’ Blooms this weekend, followed by Knoxville Opera’s Rossini Festival next weekend.

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