Catching Up as the Classical Music Season Gets Back in Swing

As the holiday hiatus and recent bone-chilling cold drift off into the recesses of memory, the January classical music scene in Knoxville is now heating up once again with a flurry of performances. Kicking off the 2014 segment of the season last week was the second installment of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Concertmaster Series, this one featuring the works of three French composers: Chausson, Saint-Saens, and Fauré.

The series title, Gabriel Lefkowitz and Friends, has turned out to be both technically and poetically accurate—it spotlights the charismatic solo performance abilities of KSO concertmaster Lefkowitz, but it has also extended that spotlight to a collaborative circle of ensemble works. It is that mix, in varying degrees, that continues to make the series’ performances so intriguing.

Collaboration, though, is a push and pull, a two-edged sword, particularly for pianist Kevin Class, who has performed with Lefkowitz on all but one of the series’ events. In the case of the first two works on last week’s program—Chausson’s Poeme and Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso—the virtuosic violin is naturally in the spotlight, with the piano taking on a reduction of the original orchestral scores. While the two pieces are certainly not background material for the piano, the pianist’s role in them inescapably becomes one of service. In direct contrast, the ensemble work on the program—Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor—required the piano to insist on an equal role, particularly in the intriguing Scherzo movement. Joining Lefkowitz and Class in this passionate performance of the Fauré quartet were Kathryn Gawne on viola and Andy Bryenton on cello. The series continues at Remedy Coffee on March 5 and 6.

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Johannes Brahms also made the piano an equal partner in his various duo sonatas. Hoping to reveal that dynamic, Class will be collaborating with three colleagues this spring in a University of Tennessee School of Music recital series of the Brahms sonatas: Cello and Piano Sonatas with Wesley Baldwin (Jan. 31); Clarinet and Piano Sonatas with Victor Chavez (Feb. 18); and Violin and Piano sonatas with Ching-yi Lin (March 12). Those recitals are in the Powell Recital Hall at the Haslam Music Center and are free.

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It’s guest month for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks series as conductor Sean Newhouse takes the podium this week for a concert that bookends Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major with the contrasting flavors of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite and Johann Strauss II’s Overture to Die Fledermaus and his Emperor Waltzes.

While one might feel hard-pressed to find any similarities between Mozart and the entertaining waltz atmosphere of the Strauss and Tchaikovsky works, careful listeners will notice the prevailing sense of sunny optimism in all. However, the Mozart concerto, with guest pianist Louis Schwizgebel, will obviously offer a much deeper journey, both melodically and emotionally. The Strauss and Tchaikovsky should prove the perfect pedestal for showcasing Mozart’s contrasting sonorities and the melancholic but beautiful Andante slow movement.

In fact, that slow movement may prove to be the real centerpiece of the evening. Schwizgebel, a 26-year-old Swiss-born pianist, has recently received quite a bit of praise from critics, including The New York Times, for precisely those qualities of maturity that Mozart demands.

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Along with Arctic cold, snow-shoveling, and extravagant heating bills, January also brings a bit of opera anxiety to Middle and East Tennessee. Each year in January, the Middle/East Tennessee District of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions alternates its competition site between Nashville and Knoxville. This year’s audition on Jan. 5 in Nashville carried a bit more anxiety than usual, as canceled flights in New York due to frigid temperatures prevented two of the three judges from arriving. John Hoomes, artistic director of the Nashville Opera, filled in for the pair on short notice, joining James Harp, artistic director of Baltimore Lyric Opera.

Despite the difficulties, 31 auditioning singers from all over the U.S. did manage to make it to Lipscomb University on that cold Saturday. Four winners were chosen, two of whom are Knoxvillians: soprano Linda Brimer Barnett and soprano Maria Natale. Also winning were baritone Jeffrey Williams, of Bangor, Pa., and tenor Stephen Martin from Rochester, Mich. The four advance to the regional competition in Memphis on Feb. 8.

Tenor Todd Barnhill, now in the graduate opera program at UT, received an encouragement award, along with Mary Laura Boyett, soprano, from Laurel, Miss.

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