UT Kicks Off a Monthly Series of Brahms' Duo Sonatas

In my year-in-review list of memorable performances for 2013, my pick of the University of Tennessee’s new Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall for the Surprise Performance award admittedly caught a few people off guard. My reasons, though, continue to be borne out—its presence has facilitated a host of new public performances and brought acoustic excellence and comfort to the audience experience. On the heels of last fall’s Beethoven Violin Sonata series in the hall comes another significant set of free recitals starting up this week: the duo sonatas of Johannes Brahms. The recitals will feature UT faculty pianist Kevin Class and three colleagues—cellist Wesley Baldwin on Friday’s opening recital, with clarinetist Victor Chavez and violinist Ching-yi Lin, a professor at Western Kentucky University, in February and March, respectively.

This Friday evening’s event covers the two Cello and Piano sonatas of Brahms which, like the composer’s other duo sonatas, treat the two instruments as equal partners. Yet the two, composed over 20 years apart, have significant stylistic differences. “[The No. 1 in E minor] is so beloved that it has iconic status as perhaps the most cherished work in the cello/piano repertoire,” Baldwin says. “He really pays homage to J.S. Bach in his use of counterpoint. … The [No. 2] F major sonata is of a different order of magnitude in scope and challenge for the players. It is symphonically and most virtuosically conceived.”

According to Class, having the two works on the same program will be both a interesting comparison and a rich reward. “The first sonata is quite elegant, charming, traditional,” Class offers. “The second sonata was viewed, in Brahms’ lifetime and for many years later, as a work that was confusing and stormy. It is a far more emotionally explosive work that demands a lot from both players physically and mentally.”

A bit of news—according to Class, there is considerably more Brahms chamber music coming next season as he and the UT School of Music offer the remainder of Brahms’ chamber music with piano. “Brahms was a very prolific composer, and, as an accomplished pianist himself, wrote some of his most glorious, difficult, and powerful piano music in collaboration with other instruments,” Class says.

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By the time you read this, the 258th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on Jan. 27, will have come and gone. Yet we still stand amazed at how the tricks of genetics, family environment, and 18th-century society combined to create a human musical phenomenon that continues to consume so much of our imagination—and rightly so.

The last six months have seen a fair amount of Mozart from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, including last Sunday’s All-Mozart venture in their Chamber Classics series. That concert, in fact, was mostly a reprise of works from their November Masterworks concert, but with the smaller chamber orchestra, in the intimate acoustics of the Bijou Theatre—and with one notable addition. Taking the concerto slot was the Mozart Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major (K. 313), featuring the KSO’s principal flute, Ebonee Thomas.

Although Mozart composed the work under a commission from a wealthy amateur flautist, the concerto requires not only technical virtuosity but also the ability to uncover Mozart’s simple melodic elegance in rather sophisticated ways. This Thomas accomplished beautifully. Along with a warm and velvety tone, Thomas brought a comfortable, natural approach to the work that delighted with both lyricism and agility. The middle Adagio movement was masterfully clear and lyrical, phrased gently, without an ounce of extra tonal baggage.

For the second half of the afternoon concert, KSO music director Lucas Richman reprised two works from November: A Musical Joke (K. 522) and the Symphony No. 31 in D Major, “Paris.” As has been the case in the past, the transference to the smaller chamber orchestra in the Bijou’s environment was quite successful. Particularly in A Musical Joke, the broad humorous concept (a satire of inept composers and clumsy performers) and the specific “jokes” worked much better in the smaller venue. Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz’s solo passages were a delight.

While Mozart’s pre-Vienna symphonies—such as the “Paris” that wrapped up Sunday’s concert—are eclipsed by the brilliance and genius of the composer’s later ones, it is always great to hear them in the Bijou, performed with precision and style.

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