Knoxville’s Best of 2011 in Classical Music

2011 has certainly turned out to be an interesting year for a lot of reasons. Since Metro Pulse‘s print coverage of classical music was scaled back by corporate mandate beginning in November, Classical Journal will be taking up the slack, at least in the short term until a more permanent solution can be created. Needless to say, the best-of-the-year lists have always been one of the most popular classical music articles in Metro Pulse over the last several years, so what would the end of December be without one? Here’s my list of the most memorable performances for 2011 in Knoxville.

Most Memorable Orchestral Performances

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Lucas Richman became something really new, fresh, and different this fall–and exciting. New personnel in the orchestra—among them the new concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz and season substitutes Peter Cain, principal clarinet, Ebonee Thomas, principal flute, and Jeffery Whaley, principal horn—have had a substantial impact on the orchestra’s already fine performance. The October and November concerts contained my two choices—Dvorák’s New World Symphony in October and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in November. The level of individual performance in the Bartok was especially stunning. Richman brought a satisfying mix of American flavors and European tradition to the Dvorák.

For honorable mention, I must choose last season’s April KSO performance of Beethoven’s Ninth with the KSO and the Knoxville Choral Society.

Most Memorable Concerto Solo Performances

I have two selections in this category. Cellist Zuill Bailey appeared with the KSO in the Dvorák Cello Concerto in a magnificent performance in November. From my review—

“[Bailey’s] ultra-relaxed stage persona oozing confidence and charisma seems to be genuine and sincere—a style that seduces the audience with a refreshing transparency. What shone through that transparency, and what made this such a rewarding listen, was a gorgeously rich cello tone with just enough edge wrapped in a judicious vibrato.”

For a number of solid reasons, my second choice is trombonist Jeremy Wilson, who appeared with the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra last February in Launy Grøndahl’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra. Wilson, a UT alumnus, is currently a trombonist with the Vienna Philharmonic, and one of the few American players in that orchestra. In my review I stated:

“This concerto asks of a trombonist—and Wilson delivered unforgettably—not just virtuosity and mastery of the trombone’s extreme range, but delicate, subtle tone one might expect from a woodwind instrument combined with the energy of a powerful, but controlled, brass instrument.”

Most Memorable Small Ensemble Performances

Perhaps this category should be titled “Perseverance in the face of Zeus-knows-what-obstacles.” For perseverance and dedication alone, the Knoxville Early Music Project certainly deserves this recognition. Now in its 20th year of existence, KEMP is the model for small ensemble performance to which the Knoxville classical music scene should be paying more attention. And, it seems they are.

KEMP’s concert in February, “Sacred Music of the Italian Baroque,” was as intriguing as it was eye-opening. KEMP also deserves thanks for being the only classical music ensemble with the willingness to appear at Metro Pulse‘s 20Fest in August. The group performed this month at St. John’s Cathedral downtown and they are scheduled to appear on New Year’s Eve as part of Downtown’s First Night celebration.

My other choice in this category is the Principal Woodwind Quintet of the KSO and their performance last season of Samuel Barber’s Summer Music. (part of the KSO’s Chamber Classics series at the Bijou)

Most Memorable Operatic Performances

Last year, my choice was obvious—soprano Rachele Gilmore for her 2010 Lucia in Knoxville Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Her appearance last April in I Puritani for KO was no less memorable, but I have decided to choose baritone Daniel Mobbs from that production. From my Metro Pulse review:

“Equally impressive was bass Daniel Mobbs, singing an outstanding performance as Giorgio, Elvira’s uncle. Mobbs’ voice has a strong, rich warmth at the low end, yet is marvelously focused and clean. This supported his elegant dramatic portrayal of the solemn Puritan that was, nonetheless, sympathetic and complex.” 

My second choice was another baritone, Mark Womack, who sang Germont in KO’s La Traviata in October. From my review:

“Once again, baritone Mark Womack, who turned out a marvelous Sharpless in last season’s Madama Butterfly, opened eyes and ears in the role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father. Not only is his voice warm and rich, but he clearly knows how to deliver conflicted but sympathetic characters.”

Most Memorable Vocal Performances

This year, this category belongs to an entire concert—Knoxville Opera Goes To Church.

“the program of gospel soloists and choir numbers, Broadway tunes, and opera arias was a bit incongruous, but that is definitely its charm and draw.”

The concert featured (among many) soprano Joyce El-Khoury, tenor Zach Borichevsky, bass Kevin Thompson, as well as Knoxvillians Denisha Ballew and tenor Boris Van Druff.

Most Memorable Surprise Performance

Without a doubt, the UT Symphony Orchestra, under Maestro James Fellenbaum, continues to surprise me. However, their performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 last February literally took my breath away. From my review:

“…the Brahms which filled most of the second half of the program—the Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, op. 68—seemed to take the evening into new and unexpected territory, at least for me. Let me be clear, this performance from the mostly-student/some-faculty orchestra was not perfect, but in terms of having the soul of musicality, it was sublime.”

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Best wishes to all for a happy 2012!

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