It had become a familiar theme for me every December. “Where’s the Music?” was the question one article’s headline posed to the realization that in the most festive, and seemingly busiest, month of the year, there were actually few music events of real substance for regular concertgoers. Of course, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra musicians were quite busy, what with being the orchestra for the Appalachian Ballet productions of The Nutcracker and the orchestra’s own Clayton Holiday pops concerts. And, there are obviously more religious events with varying styles of music during the month. But—with apologies to Handel—how many times does one need to hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” performed badly during December, while other great and complex works like Bach’s Christmas Oratorio are passed over? In fact, the Knoxville music scene was missing practically anything that might offer a fix for the jingle-bell jangled music taste of regular concertgoers. And, based on the comments received, I wasn’t the only one that found the December situation unacceptable.
Thankfully, beginning in 2015, the KSO revamped its late November Chamber Classics concert into “Classical Christmas,” a program of music that was to leave “holiday favorites” to other occasions, and explore interesting pieces from the vastness of music history. The 2017 version of “Classical Christmas,” heard this past Sunday at the Bijou, took giant steps in that direction in a concert that drew a full-house audience. Under the direction of the orchestra’s resident conductor James Fellenbaum, the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra offered an orchestral and choral afternoon, joined by the Webb School of Knoxville Chamber Singers.
Fellenbaum, who intriguingly conducted the entire concert without a score, opened the concert with a quasi-pops icebreaker, “Overture to a Merry Christmas” from Robert Wendel’s arranged A Classical Christmas Suite. Admittedly, I laugh when I hear it, in spite of myself. The work amusingly interweaves melodies of Christmas carols with overture themes from Mozart operas.
It seemed from my perch in the balcony that the further that Fellenbaum and the orchestra departed from the very familiar, the greater the audience’s appreciation. Highlights of the afternoon included “Christmas Waltz” from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons; the “Shepherd’s Farewell” from Berlioz’ The Childhood of Christ; two works by the contemporary English composer John Rutter, the Candlelight Carol and the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol; and a marvelous performance by the choral ensemble with augmented KSO strings, Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium.
The accomplished choral ensemble also did a wonderful performance of the chuckle-producing arrangement of 12 Days of Christmas from Straight No Chaser.
Kudos go to the KSO for a satisfying and charming “Classical Christmas,” but also for its recognition of the needs of post-Thanksgiving classical music listeners. Of course, I’ll continue to push for more music in December—that is what is always on the top of my holiday list.
Also in December:
Marble City Opera’s production of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
Friday, December 8, and Sunday, December 10
St. John’s Cathedral, Downtown Knoxville
Appalachian Ballet Company: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker
With the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra
December 2 (7:30 PM) and 3 (3:00 PM) at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium
December 8 and 9 at the Clayton Center in Maryville