Although it is not spring yet, this past Sunday had all the earmarks of an early spring day—warm-ish, sunny, and cheerful. I was lured back inside, though, for one of my favorite University of Tennessee School of Music events, the annual UT Symphony Orchestra concert that features the School’s Concerto Competition winners. Watching and listening to young musicians who will be a vital part of the classical music world in the future is always totally invigorating and fans the flames of optimism in my musical heart. The judged competition covers four categories: strings, piano, any other instrument, and voice.
In reverse order of their appearance on the Concertos and Classics concert:
The winner in the strings category, violinist Benjamin Parton is, indeed, an impressive musician. His performance was the first movement from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a work now beloved but which was originally scorned by critics. Critic Eduard Hanslick disliked the work intensely saying “the violin was not played but beaten black and blue.” Times, and taste, change. Today, the work is almost a rite of passage for violin soloists who aspire to the highest ranks. Parton, who is only an undergraduate sophomore and who has already been UTSO concertmaster for two years, seems destined for those ranks.
Mezzo-soprano Melanie Burbules made a case for her future with a brilliantly impressive performance of four of Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs) of Alban Berg. Burbules is a second-year graduate student who was heard last fall in the UTOT production of The Consul as “The Secretary,” a role that showed off her luscious range and crisp diction. She is also a Young Artist with Marble City Opera.
Pianist Elizabeth Vaughan, a first year graduate student in the School of Music, stunned the audience with her first movement from Chopin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in F minor. Vaughan hails from Highland Park, Illinois, and studied at the Interlochen Arts Academy and Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
Saxophonist Junwen Jia took on Jacques Ibert’s difficult Concertino da camera and made it his own with an impressive show of technical and artistic prowess. Jia, originally from Yantai, China, is a graduate student in Saxophone Performance, studying with UTKSOM Professor Allison Adams. Jia received his undergraduate degree from Ithaca College. At UT, he is a member of the Wind Ensemble, Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Saxophone Ensemble, and the Utopia Saxophone Quartet.
The UT Symphony Orchestra was under the direction of James Fellenbaum. He opened the afternoon concert with the intriguing “Triumphal March” from Edvard Grieg’s incidental music (later an orchestral suite) to the play, Sigurd Jorsalfar. Interestingly, the work opens with a trumpet fanfare section followed by a quartet of cellos—a nicely played showcase for the orchestra.