If there was ever a year that needed an asterisk in the arts journalism record books, it was this year, 2017. The loss of the Knoxville Mercury in July—a loss that still seems unimaginable and one that offered an unfortunate statement on Knoxville’s priorities—changed the entire dynamic of arts coverage in Knoxville. To be sure, print media has been in a general decline, its traditional presence diffused by a plethora of other media choices. However, quantity is not a substitute for quality; arts readers today seem to be unsure how best to obtain the news and commentary that they once took for granted.
This website, Arts Knoxville, was expanded in scale and design in late August to help offset the loss. However, support from the Knoxville arts audience, and its sponsors, is still needed if the website’s existence, and full expansion, is to continue. The prospect of a revitalized city waking up to discover it is without a public conversation on the arts is, indeed, a bleak one.
My “Most Memorable of the Year” list of classical music performances began in the pages of the former Metro Pulse, later finding a place in the Knoxville Mercury. Now, it has a home in Arts Knoxville. Here, then, is the list for 2017.
Most Memorable Orchestral Performances
A number of diverse factors confronted audiences this year. William Shaub began as the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s new concertmaster in September, replacing Gabriel Lefkowitz. While the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, Aram Demirjian, is now in his second year with the orchestra, the schedule over the year still had a mix of guest conductors.
I’ve chosen three performances, starting with the January Masterworks appearance by guest conductor Andrew Grams and a program of works by Smetana, Sibelius, and Dvořák. The real attention-getter was Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60. In my review in the Knoxville Mercury, I wrote: “By the finale movement, Grams and the orchestra had offered not only a beguiling take on rhythm and tempo but a solid lyricism, constructed of perfectly balanced woodwind melodic statements against drama in the strings. However, in the conclusion, Grams again worked the Dvořák rhythm to urge the audience forward in their seats—something they were all too happy to do.”
For the KSO’s musically diverse season finale in May, I wrote in the Mercury: “KSO music director Aram Demirjian’s program for the evening reflected change and risk-taking, and suggested an eclectic future direction for the orchestra.”
In addition to a marvelous performance on that concert of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Demirjian led the orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth: “Finally, putting that exclamation point on the evening was a reassuring and euphoric performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, a work treasured by serious listeners for its coherent complexity and known to almost everyone else in western civilization by the opening passage’s statement of fate.”
Given the KSO’s continuing contract negotiations with its musicians, I am pleased to mention a performance that was the ultimate showcase of the orchestra’s individual and ensemble achievements, the October performance of Ravel’s Bolero with Demirjian on the podium. [Review]
I cannot leave this category without a serious mention going to the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra under conductor James Fellenbaum. The orchestra has made a real statement this season, with its October performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 representing a major achievement in ensemble playing.
Most Memorable Concerto Soloists
Although the bulk of the KSO’s concerto soloists are guest artists, this year’s top mention goes to KSO Principal oboist Claire Chenette and her performance last April in Mozart’s Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra in C Major, K. 314, with the KSO Chamber Orchestra under James Fellenbaum. From my Mercury review: “Chenette delivered a refreshing interpretation of this supremely challenging work, full of charming nuance and chirruped details that magnetically held the listener’s attention.”
More recently, violinist Paul Huang cultivated a lot of Knoxville admirers with his November KSO performance in Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major. “Those that hoped for a sublime magical moment were rewarded with one as Huang and [guest conductor] Joshua Gersen moved from the last measures of the introspective Larghetto movement into the ebullient Rondo and its relaxed and sunny disposition.”
A discussion of concerto performances in 2017 would not be complete without mentioning the March performance by departing KSO concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz of the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major. From the Mercury review: “It hardly needs saying that Lefkowitz had the orchestra completely on his side in this performance … What Lefkowitz offered in return was a sublime performance of milk and honey tones contrasted with broad swaths of spicy vinegar that kept the listener involved and intrigued—all carried out with splendid technique.”
Most Memorable Chamber Music Performances
It’s almost impossible to choose in this category given the burgeoning chamber music scene and the ever-increasing quantity of performances. Here are my subjective choices.
“…as energetic and compelling as any in recent memory…” was my description of a commanding performance of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, in a UT School of Music faculty/guest artist recital. The quartet consisted of UT faculty violinist Geoffrey Herd along with guests Eric Wong (viola), Max Geissler (cello), and Cahill Smith (piano).
Last January, the KSO Principal Quartet moved to the Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall at UT and offered a golden performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3.
A week or so earlier, the Principal Quartet (Gordon Tsai and Edward Pulgar, violins; Kathryn Gawne, viola; and Andy Bryenton, cello) was joined by other KSO colleagues in a sensational Concertmaster Series performance of Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor and Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A Major. Then-concertmaster Lefkowitz and oboist Chenette were soloists in the Bach; KSO Principal Clarinet Gary Sperl was superb in the Mozart.
Most Memorable Opera Performances
The opera performance picks this year come without any hesitation. Knoxville Opera’s Gala Concert celebrating its 40th Anniversary turned out to be a memorable event in every sense of the word. In the warm and crystal clear acoustics of the Bijou Theatre, KO music director and conductor Brian Salesky led soloists and orchestra in 14 works spread across the operatic repertoire that represented the company’s past and its possible future.
Soloists were soprano Rochelle Bard and mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel who had previously appeared as the two queens in KO’s production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Also from that production was the amazing baritone Scott Bearden. New to KO was tenor Aaron Short. Bearden and Short brought tears to many eyes with “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Bard’s “Io son l’umile ancella” from Adriana Lecouvreur was simply thrilling in its subtlety and power.
From my Arts Knoxville review: “What those opera-goers received was a concert lovingly constructed, programmed, and led by Knoxville Opera maestro Brian Salesky, and performed with stunning artistry by four soloists, a vocal ensemble, and a 50-member Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. All that made for a packed Bijou Theatre, but one that radiated with sublime performances that electrified the willing audience.”
Of equal landmark status was Marble City Opera’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata, performed not in a theatre, but in the rooms and spaces of Knoxville’s Westwood mansion. With soprano Kathryn Frady singing the lead role of Violetta, this tradition-busting production both delighted and challenged the audience. I offered in my review: “Even without the safety buffer that distance and a proscenium offers, [Frady’s] voice works in close quarters, retaining the silky subtlety and delicacy to contrast with the requisite power the role demands. Her performance was dramatically personal and intensely musically satisfying.” [Review]
Most Memorable Contemporary Performances
Two major drivers of contemporary music—and a contemporary aesthetic—just happen to make their home in Knoxville. The vast and practically indescribable Big Ears Festival—in 2018, Mar 22 – Mar 25 in downtown Knoxville venues—continues to enlighten and challenge listeners. The festival has become a nationally-renowned event for the eclectic audience that is drawn to new music programming that seems to inhabit its own musical universe.
Nief-Norf was created in 2005 by UT percussion faculty member Andrew Bliss and a fellow Illinois native Kerry O’Brien, who took their ensemble’s name from a descriptor of strange sounds. Its Nief-Norf Summer Festival, held in Knoxville each June, has become a major magnet for contemporary composers and performers—and those who want to join the ranks.