Knoxville's Resurgent Classical Music Scene

While many other cities have seen their symphonies and operas shut down, KSO and KO have rebounded with growing audiences. How did they do it?

The early Wednesday evening of last Feb. 8 was a bit chilly, but no other discouragement from Mother Nature prevented two long lines from forming outside downtown's Tennessee Theatre. One line stretched down Gay Street as far as the Regal Riviera cinemas and the other turned the corner of Clinch and ended at the State Street Parking Garage. Passersby may have gawked at the mixture of excited school-age kids and patient adults in line—numbering well over a thousand—and wondered what celebrity could possibly draw such an enthusiastic, impromptu crowd. A country music performer? An aging rocker? No, they would have been told, it's the dress rehearsal for Knoxville Opera's production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette.

While dress rehearsals for Knoxville Opera productions are generally non-public events attended only by sponsors and a smattering of colleagues, the bulk of this crowd—estimated at 1,400 by the opera company's count—had been tantalized by a unique educational outreach program that brought a condensed 37-minute English version of the opera to 14 Knox County schools. Apparently, the overall audience intrigue for the production went quite a bit deeper than even a well-attended dress rehearsal. By the end of the following Sunday afternoon's final matinée performance, Romeo et Juliette had become the opera company's second highest grossing production in terms of ticket sales (exceeded only by The Pirates of Penzance in 2010) and number one in terms of overall attendance among recent productions.

Two weeks earlier on a Sunday afternoon, just down Gay Street at the Bijou Theatre, ticket holders began arriving for January's Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Chamber Classics series concert only to find the lobby shoulder to shoulder with last-minute ticket buyers—and themselves shoulder to shoulder in their seats for what turned out to be a virtually sold-out house for a Baroque music concert of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. Earlier that month, the KSO enjoyed its biggest Thursday/Friday series seller of the season, a pair of All-Mozart concerts featuring guest conductor Edward Cumming.

While ticket sales are a specific barometer of success, organizations that offer free admission have seen positive changes as well. For example, the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra, part of the UT School of Music, has seen phenomenal gains over the last several years, growing from a few attendees to visibly overflowing their performance hall. Leaps in the orchestra's artistic quality have been noticeable as well—so much so that I once termed them in an article, "Knoxville's other symphony orchestra."

While anecdotal success stories such as these do not necessarily indicate the overall health of Knoxville's classical music scene, they do seem to be evidence that something positive is afoot. To many observers, the Knoxville concert/opera audience demographic seems to be trending younger and more enthusiastic, perhaps in response to the revitalized downtown environment that offers much more of a complete evening out. This trend, roughly paralleling the time frame of Knoxville's downtown revival, has apparently been driven as well by a number of factors: a modicum of financial stability in the performing arts organizations, the steady infusion of talented performers and artistic management into the area, and the refurbishment of two of downtown's performance venues, the Tennessee and Bijou theaters.

Oddly, the apparent vitality of Knoxville's music scene has come about in a national performing arts environment that has been experiencing bad news, practically on a daily basis. Many cities have found their treasured music organizations and opera companies in dire financial straits. This was certainly highlighted by the recent bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the largest, and most renowned, of a number of orchestras that have curtailed operations or shut down, and have had to seek court protection—among them the Louisville Orchestra, the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, the New Mexico Symphony in Albuquerque, and the Honolulu Symphony. For many other groups, such as the Delaware Symphony, reorganization was impractical, so they've scaled back seasons and drastically cut expenses.

On the opera side, company closures—notably Cleveland Opera, Baltimore Opera, Connecticut Opera, Opera Pacific, and Opera Boston, not to mention the ongoing financial struggles of New York City Opera—have been hammer blows to local communities at the same time overall opera awareness has been growing due to the publicity given the Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD" broadcasts to movie theaters.

Despite tribulations elsewhere in the U.S., the managements of the KSO and Knoxville Opera—both non-profit organizations—now report stable financial situations even though the seesaw battle in balancing costs, audience expectations, and artistic achievement is an ongoing one. The perplexing questions are: Is the perceived heightened enthusiasm for Knoxville's classical and new music scene real? And, if so, can Knoxville sustain and grow it, or will market realities rain on its parade?

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra

The KSO passed its 75th Anniversary season two years ago, but all the hoopla surrounding the celebration apparently paid off, with that year showing the highest Thursday/Friday Masterworks series attendance in its history—five nearly sold-out Friday night performances in the Tennessee Theater, with an all-performance average attendance of 1,250. Year over year, KSO ticket figures show a modest but steady upward trend with correlations to the overall economic climate and to programming efforts. But as the KSO management is quick to point out, ticket sales roughly account for only 30-40 percent of the organization's $3.6 million budget, with the remainder coming from donations, sponsors, endowments, and grants.

While music director Lucas Richman is entering his 10th season with the orchestra, he is also nearing the end of a contract that currently extends through the 2013-14 season. Within those 10 years, the orchestra has found not only reasonable financial stability, but has most recently made a remarkable and noticeable leap ahead in the critical quality of its ensemble playing and its sound, something that can certainly drive ticket demand.

On the financial stability side, KSO recently announced that their 2012 fiscal year ended in the black, marking the sixth consecutive year that the organization has operated within a balanced budget. However, KSO Executive Director Rachel Ford admits that however smooth the road appears now, there had been some bumps along the way.

"We had our tricky situation when I arrived here in 2007," Ford explains. "We were $500,000 in the hole, we were in the process of re-thinking programming... we began approaching marketing with a different spin and a different thought process. And that has been one of the biggest things that has helped turn us around. We, as an institution, have talked a lot more about programming."

Although it may not be visible to outsiders, organizations and their music directors inevitably find there is a delicate balance in a market like Knoxville between programming that sells tickets to a traditional audience, and programming that is enticing to new or adventurous listeners.

"There are certain contemporary composers I would love to be able to program," Richman says, "but it becomes a huge commitment on the orchestra. Without a long period of outreach, explanation, and preparation for the audience experience, it's hard to program those. Even programming lesser known works by well known composers has not always been successful ... But, you can't keep programming the same things over and over, so we try to program as broadly as possible.

"One of my goals as music director," Richman continues, "has been to not perpetuate the idea that classical music is some kind of elitist art form. Quite the contrary, I love the theatricality of it."

As example, Richman offers up the current and somewhat unusual collaboration between the KSO and the Clarence Brown Theatre that has the orchestra onstage in a full production of the musical Sweeney Todd, a follow-up to a highly successful production two years ago of the play Amadeus. "Amadeus served to show that Mozart was a tangible guy... and with the orchestra and singers onstage, we were his legacy and that you could reach out and touch the music," he says.

Being able to reach out and touch the music will definitely be the case with the creation of a new KSO series that literally promises to break out of the concert hall, take chamber music to where it was meant to be, and change some minds along the way. The orchestra's new concertmaster, Gabriel Lefkowitz, now in his second year with the orchestra, has been given the reins to a new Wednesday/Thursday series at Remedy Coffee in the Old City, called "Gabriel Lefkowitz and Friends." The three programs—set for October 3-4, January 16-17, and March 13-14—will include a number of Lefkowitz's KSO colleagues and an eclectic mix of music from the Baroque to contemporary.

Lefkowitz, who turns 25 in October, strikingly defies the traditional image of an orchestra's concertmaster, usually a player considerably older in both age and experience. While the hire may have provoked an age discussion at first, both the orchestra and the audiences have clearly been won over by his obvious ability and a charisma that is putting a youthful and energetic face on Knoxville's classical music scene. Ford gets right to the point: "Gabe's a super-star for us right now."

"One of the wonderful things we saw in Gabe was his leadership abilities and a maturity that goes well beyond his years," Richman observes. "And he's a brilliant violinist, not to mention a conductor and composer. The idea with this new series is accessibility and intimacy. That's what chamber music is all about. Gabe is absolutely the right person to lead it."

When the Thursday night performances were quickly snapped up as an extra by KSO subscribers, there appears to have been little hesitation in adding another night. "I think Wednesday will be a less traditional crowd," Lefkowitz offers in deference to the Old City music scene. "Every place down here in the Old City has live music, there's a good audience for it, and there are people who have really good taste in music that may not currently be regular concertgoers. That's the audience that I'd like see coming to these performances... it's a good way of getting people to go outside of what they may think is their comfort zone and try it ... not because it's music that one needs to hear, but because it is fun and they will enjoy themselves."

In addition to the new "Concertmaster" series, the KSO Masterworks begins its monthly pair of concerts on September 20-21 with a program featuring Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with pianist Orion Weiss, then joined by the Chamber Classics series at the Bijou beginning in November.

Knoxville Opera

Knoxville Opera executive director Brian Salesky freely admits that the phenomenon surrounding last season's Romeo et Juliette took him by surprise.

"Every place else in the United States," Salesky explains, "Romeo et Juliette is way down on the list of possible productions. You never drag it out until you've pretty much run out of everything else to do. Because most places, they just don't buy tickets to Romeo et Juliette."

Nevertheless, "they" did buy tickets—and it begs the question: who are "they"? Is the demographic of the Knoxville opera-going audience changing? According to many observers, it may be the case that the older and grayer image of the operagoer is falling by the wayside. Andrew Wentzel, UT Music voice faculty member and a frequent KO cast member, is among many who have noticed: "Standing in front of the Tennessee Theatre on opera performance nights, I have been astounded, astounded by the number of young people, college students, and young professionals that are now attending, in addition to the Old Guard. The opera company has made huge strides in reaching out to younger audiences."

Changes like these often leave arts marketers scratching their heads. If these changes are afoot, are they due to the appeal of specific operas or to the appeal of the overall opera-going experience? Salesky believes the latter. "I'm not sure it has anything to do with the operas themselves," Salesky maintains. "I think it had everything to do with the way we were marketing the company." That marketing has included advertising the attractiveness of singers, such as Noah Stewart and Zulimar López-Hernández in Romeo et Juliette; celebrity appeal as David Keith brought to The Pirates of Penzance; eye-opening vocal abilities as in the case of Rachele Gilmore in Lucia di Lammermoor; and, in general, unabashedly painting the opera experience as something that is socially trendy as well as a fun evening exploring a novel art form.

Short-term trends must be the means, and not the end, to an organization's future solidity. Prior to Salesky's arrival in the 2005-06 season, Knoxville Opera had found itself on the verge of financial failure due to the age-old issue of spending way more than it took in—something that is ultimately a matter of a company's priorities. After getting KO on a sound financial footing—first with judicious cutbacks, later with cautious expansion—Salesky has since tasked himself with the same job faced by all opera companies: insure that the audience grows and that there are younger operagoers to replace the present audience as it inevitably ages.

"Part of that is this whole education outreach," Salesky says. "The question is: How do you design the program so it actually translates into people coming to performances? That's very tough. Because no matter what you do with education outreach in schools, you can't force students to come down to the theater on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon and spend money. Moms and dads have to do that. But, clearly, this has done something very positive for us."

Also on the positive side, Salesky believes there has been a strong synergistic relationship between the arts organizations, their audiences, and the city—one that is paying off. "The struggle to re-energize downtown into a place where people wanted to go on a daily basis for entertainment has basically been accomplished. Now, it looks like we are in a growth phase, both artistically and fiscally," he says. "It is important that the Arts and Culture Alliance is supported because it is the bedrock of all of the arts organizations' stability. That stability allows us to speak with one voice about the value of having a healthy arts/culture fabric in the city."

Knoxville Opera's production season begins in October with Strauss' Die Fledermaus in English, continues in February with Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West, and returns Gioachino Rossini to the Rossini Festival with Cinderella in English.

The University of Tennessee School of Music

In terms of the sheer quantity of music performances offered to the public on a regular basis—and audience bang for the buck—the UT School of Music is in many ways the giant of Knoxville's classical and new music scene. While its core mission—training musicians for professional and academic careers—does not specifically depend on attracting an outside audience, the school does so to integrate students with the performing arts world and to provide music performances to the public that might be creatively or financially unfeasible elsewhere.

On the horizon is the completion of its new facility, the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013. Because the new facility had to built on the site of the old building, the school's faculty, classrooms, and performance spaces have been scattered among a number of temporary locations around the campus. Adding to this difficulty was the death of its director, Roger Stephens, in February of 2011. Stephens' successor, Jeffrey Pappas, began his tenure last month with the daunting task of maintaining the educational and performance reputation of the school, all the while planning for what could undeniably be a quantum leap in capabilities with the new facility.

Through it all, the performing groups within the school most visible to the public have soldiered on. The UT Symphony Orchestra, that has prospered artistically under the leadership of James Fellenbaum, has grown phenomenally in stature and has developed a substantial public in its performance space, the James R. Cox Auditorium—as have the five choral music groups, and the wind ensemble and symphonic band programs. The UT Opera Theatre, under James Marvel, has taken chances with edgier offerings aimed at diverse campus audiences, yet has acquired a loyal following among older opera goers.

Unfortunately, one of the school's best-kept secrets has been the unbelievably plentiful and varied faculty and guest artist recital programs, all of which are free. Overall, these one-of-a-kind subsidized performances are scandalously under-attended by non-university audiences, perhaps due to the understandable perception that parking on campus is problematic. For the lucky students and adventurous outsiders, the programs offer rare chances to hear music and performers they wouldn't be able to hear elsewhere at any price.

Knoxville Opera's Salesky is adamant about the value of the school to the Knoxville scene: "This synergistic relationship between the UT School of Music and Knoxville Opera is critical for both of us. They use the relationship with Knoxville Opera as part of their recruiting program. And, it's essential for us because we get to make this tremendous contribution to the community with a robust education outreach program which we otherwise couldn't afford to do."

Pappas is rather quick to acknowledge the importance of those historic connections between the school and Knoxville's other music organizations. "When there is a synergy between a professional organization and a university, when those worlds combine, all the better," he says. "After all, we are training the people who are the future of those organizations."


"I hate classical music—not the thing, but the name," wrote Alex Ross in the opening of his book Listen to This, a collection of his essays from The New Yorker. "It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past."

Fortunately, the manufactured elitism and stereotypes that grew up around classical music in the last 75 years or so are rapidly fading. Knoxville music audiences, too, have been waking up to the realization that good music is simply... good music.