Most Memorable Classical Music Performances of 2014

All in all, 2014 was pretty much a good year in terms of classical music performances in Knoxville—unless you happened to be a certain classical music writer. Despite the local newspaper coverage turmoil in the final quarter of the year, life went on for performers and performances. And, as usual, the cream of the crop presented itself with the usual ration of pleasant surprises.

2015 promises to be just as fascinating, maybe even more, given that half of it will be Maestro Lucas Richman’s final performances with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the finale of which will contain Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with soloist Gabriel Lefkowitz and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Equally intriguing will be the last half of the year as the new KSO conductor search heats up. Of course, don’t be surprised if Knoxville Opera, Marble City Opera, and the UT School of Music make a few waves of their own. In that regard, Marble City Opera’s January production, La Femme Bohème (La Bohème with an all-female cast) promises to open some eyes. Knoxville Opera will be offering Carmen in February and Il Trovatore in April.

But enough of the future; here is my list of the Most Memorable Classical Music Performances of 2014.

Most Memorable Orchestral Performance

This was actually an easy choice this year—the 2013-14 season-ending Masterworks concert by the KSO (Lucas Richman conducting) featured an amazing performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. In my Metro Pulse review, I stated “On an orchestral level, this was the most focused, balanced, and incisive performance that I had heard from the KSO all season.

As an honorable mention, I chose the January KSO concert that featured guest conductor Sean Newhouse in a crisp and entertaining performance of works by Johann Strauss and Tchaikovsky, along with an excellent take on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with pianist Louis Schwizgebel.

Most Memorable Concerto Soloist Performance

This year, I’m choosing two different pianists—different in both style and approach, but both exceedingly memorable. That season finale for the KSO last May mentioned above also contained a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with pianist Spencer Myer. In my Metro Pulse review, I stated “Myer’s approach was determined, precise, and passionate without even the least hint of being forced or overly romanticized.

My other choice is Jon Kimura Parker who opened the 2014-15 season for the KSO with Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. “His youth-like energy and warmth—and most importantly, his mature and intelligent insight into the music—was a gorgeous match for the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor…” [full review]

Certainly deserving of applause and respect was violinist Miroslav Hristov in an excellent performance of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole performed by the UT Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro James Fellenbaum.

Most Memorable Small Ensemble Performance

Chamber music in Knoxville has definitely moved into the top tier of music events in the Knoxville classical music scene in the last three years, with kudos going to the efforts of KSO concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz and his Concertmaster Series. My pick goes to last May’s inaugural concert at the Knoxville Museum of Art which featured Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major (“American”)—Lefkowitz and Gordon Tsai, violins; Kathryn Gawne, viola; and Andy Bryenton, cello.

Most Memorable Solo Instrumental Performance

While Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen is not a solo piece per se, it is a solo showcase vehicle for a virtuosic violinist. KSO Concertmaster Gabriel Lefkowitz performed this stunning work on several occasions last season, including two performances with the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra in May that simply left the audience speechless.

Most Memorable Operatic Performance

In Marble City Opera’s second year, soprano Kathryn Frady electrified Square Room audiences in Larry Delinger’s Amelia Lost, a one-woman character piece about a homeless woman who believes she is Amelia Earhart. From my Arts Knoxville review: “Frady’s performance was, simply stated, a sensational theatre experience. Matching her vocal characterization was an almost uncanny ability to dramatically transform her face, and her persona, from softness and gentleness, to angst-ridden and depleted. James Marvel directed.” [full review]

A big honorable mention goes to soprano Rochelle Bard for her marvelous title role performance in Knoxville Opera’s Norma. [review]
I must also mention the exceedingly impressive performance of soprano Emily Birsan in a selection of Verdi arias with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in November — my pick as a concert vocalist standout. [full review]

Biggest Surprise Performance of 2014

Looking back over the season, I really have to give a nod to an inanimate object/space, as I did last year, for its effect on classical music. The move of the KSO Concertmaster Series to the Great Hall of the Knoxville Museum of Art has served to integrate visual arts and music into a unifying experience for the audience. In a peripheral way, the move has also taken us out of the concert hall box and allowed us to explore new spaces and new venues.

The idea of new venues for the Knoxville performing arts is one that I’ve touched on a lot recently and one that I assign a big priority to for Knoxville’s music scene—and it is one issue that will confront us more in the future as we find success in our diverse music scene.