When the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra first announced the new Concertmaster Series of chamber music performances last year, many (including this writer) rejoiced--and for more than one reason. First, the series would highlight the artistry of its new concertmaster, Gabriel Lefkowitz, and use his energy and personality to open up some new doors to classical music for traditional audiences and potential new ones. Second, Lefkowitz would be able to program solo works and small ensemble pieces that were otherwise excluded by default from existing programming. And third, the series would, at long last, explore alternative spaces for music--spaces with intimate acoustic qualities more suitable for chamber music, and ones that would engender a sense of discovery.
Quite appropriately, this eye-and-ear-opening series wrapped up its last of three pairs of concerts last evening at Remedy Coffee in downtown's Old City with Felix Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat Major, one of chamber music's most remarkable pieces. In this case, it was also a remarkable conclusion to a remarkable experiment that has been wildly successful for the reasons mentioned above. Lefkowitz was joined in the octet by violinists Gordon Tsai, Edward Pulgar, and Sean Claire; violists Kathryn Gawne and Eunsoon Lee-Corliss; and cellists Andy Bryenton and Ihsan Kartal.
The eight came together for a performance that was full of passion and emotion, with moments of intensity contrasting with those of reverie. The first movement, with that sublimely infectious theme and driving, exploding energy, practically demanded (and received) applause even from those who like to hear things straight through to the end. I don't say this often, but in this case, the applause release was necessary and heartfelt.
The contrasting Andante second movement was luscious and poignant. Whether it could have been even more tearfully luscious and balanced is a nitpick that, given this accomplished ensemble, is completely debatable. The Presto final movement was as emotionally energetic as one could hope.
Lefkowitz and pianist Kevin Class opened the concert with five duos that not only highlighted the concertmaster's virtuosic abilities and innate musicality, but were also delightful entertainments: François Schubert's The Bee; two arrangements by Jascha Heifetz--Manuel Ponce's Estrellita and Sergei Rachmaninoff's Daisies; Antonio Bazzini's wacky and energetic Round of Goblins; and an encore of Paganini's Cantabile.
Beyond the obvious music value, the importance of the Concertmaster Series to the overall downtown music environment cannot be overstated. Being a part of Knoxville's newfound "there" will continue to be a factor for the entire Knoxville music scene.
I'll say it before you ask--the Concertmaster Series will return next season with much the same formula and at Remedy Coffee. Works will include a Schubert Piano Trio, a Fauré Piano Quartet, and a Brahms sextet. Ticket prices will remain a bargain at $15, but are currently being offered to subscribers. Look for individual and non-subscriber tickets later in the summer.