Review: KSO and Knoxville Chamber Chorale Make a Case for December Music

It was probably four or five years ago when I began mentioning in my columns what seemed to be a strange scarcity of professional classical music performances in Knoxville during the month of December, a month I believed should be virtually saturated with music events. That year, I scanned every event calendar I could find, but the results were inescapable. With UT ending its performance calendar at the end of November, and discounting the officially religious offerings by area churches, the only events in downtown Knoxville were Appalachian Ballet’s annual Nutcracker performances and the annual Clayton Holiday concerts, both which involved the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. For dance and ballet aficionados, seeing The Nutcracker every year may be mandatory, but for some others, it wasn’t. For those without children in the house, Santa Claus themed pops concerts might get a pass.

For KSO musicians, my comments probably seemed silly. After all, the KSO players were rehearsing or performing for a sizable chunk of the month in those events—so what’s the problem? For audiences, though, and particularly those who are aware of the depth of the musical repertoire beyond the regularly played carols, modern favorites, and obvious warhorses, there was something lacking. And, when Knoxville’s event schedule was compared to other cities of similar and larger size, it seemed as bleak as a cold, icy wind blowing down Gay Street.

Oddly, some really believed that there was no market for any more music events in December. After all, I was once told by a certain former music director, touring bands and performers in pop/rock genres often take the month off. However, conversations I had with other listeners and musicians told me that this was a situation that should change. And, now, in 2015, perhaps the reality that December is a great month for classical music is finally taking hold.

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(Photo Courtesy KSO)

(Photo Courtesy KSO)

This season, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra moved its November Chamber Classics concert to the weekend after Thanksgiving. If they were nervous about doing so, thinking that people just wouldn’t come out, they shouldn’t have been. Last Sunday’s concert—“Classical Christmas”—drew what appeared to be a sellout crowd, one of the largest at a Chamber Classics concert at the Bijou that I have yet seen.

What was significant about this concert was that it dipped into the vast repertoire of Christmas and winter-related classical music that is generally absent from holiday concerts. Certainly a valid choice by KSO resident conductor James Fellenbaum was a crisp performance of Mozart’s German Dance No. 3 from the 1791 set that is K. 605, known as “Sleigh Ride” due to the inclusion of sleigh bells. And, I appreciated Émile Waldteufel’s Skater’s Waltz that concluded the first half. In between, Fellenbaum chose Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8, and Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Greensleeves.

The excellent Knoxville Chamber Chorale (director, John Orr) joined the KSO on the second half of the program in works for chorus and orchestra.

Despite its modern ubiquity, I’ll admit to a fondness for Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from his Cantata No. 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, especially when performed as it should be with orchestra and top-notch singers. And, I was totally impressed and charmed by a performance of Stille Nacht in the Chip Davis/Mannheim Steamroller arrangement. Following was an intriguing “Jingle Bell Fantasy” arranged by Mac Huff. While I have been known to cast aspersions on English composer John Rutter for a number of reasons, I will concede his contributions to contemporary Christmas music. In fact, I loved the performance of “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” and the “Nativity Carol,” both of which are on the John Rutter Christmas Album. (No, that’s not a hint.)

I really can’t say enough good things about the Knoxville Chamber Chorale’s performance on this concert; this is an ensemble that I wish we were hearing more of, especially during December.

And, here is a vote of confidence for December music from the KSO. A full house at the Bijou should tell you something.

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