I first wrote about Gabriel Lefkowitz in 2011, when the then 24-year-old violinist was auditioning for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster position. As part of the audition process, Lefkowitz was the guest concertmaster on the KSO’s Masterworks series, a concert that featured the famous Midori as guest solo violinist. Lefkowitz also had his own extended solo that evening, in a performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. Many in the audience—including this writer—felt Lefkowitz had won the evening with his energy, personality, and consummate musicality.
In the following six years, Lefkowitz’s presence and leadership in the KSO’s first chair have been an obvious inspiration for his fellow players. His energy seemed to translate into new energy for the orchestra. His confidence was contagious, showing up as a newfound sparkle in the orchestra’s work as an ensemble.
Nothing lasts forever, though. Last summer, Lefkowitz took the inevitable next step in his career by accepting the comparable concertmaster position with the Louisville Orchestra. He has split his time this season serving both orchestras and completing his commitment to the KSO. That tenure came to an end—symbolically, at least—on last weekend’s Masterworks concerts, with Lefkowitz’s appearance as the featured soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major.
It hardly needs saying that Lefkowitz had the orchestra completely on his side in this performance. With KSO music director Aram Demirjian back on the podium for the first time this year, the orchestra found considerable depth and sensitivity in support of the violinist. What Lefkowitz offered in return was a sublime performance of milk and honey tones contrasted with broad swaths of spicy vinegar that kept the listener involved and intrigued—all carried out with splendid technique.
The audience, too, was squarely on Lefkowitz’s side. They rewarded the assertive conclusion of the concerto’s opening movement with a not-unexpected round of applause. The opening of the slow Adagio movement, though, belongs to a gorgeous melodic theme from the oboe, played in this case by KSO principal Claire Chenette. After the work’s conclusion, Lefkowitz rushed over to thank Chenette for her performance, then followed it with a hug for each front-row player of the string section as the audience roared its own appreciation for a job well done.
In the same way that Lefkowitz began with the KSO, the first of two candidates vying to replace him, William Shaub, took the guest concertmaster spot for the evening. Shaub had his own impressive solo turn in the first half of the evening, on Peter Maxwell Davies’ 1984 work, An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise. As a programmatic tale of a Scottish wedding—musical inebriation included—the work is quirky and richly textured by woodwind color and percussion effects. The “sunrise” came in the form of an actually bagpiper, who entered playing from the back of the Tennessee Theatre and finished up on stage just as the work ends.
Preceding the Davies, Demirjian gave an obligatory nod to St. Patrick’s Day with Percy Grainger’s orchestration of Irish Tune From County Derry, the tune popularly known as “Danny Boy.” Of more significance, however, were the two opening works roughly dedicated to the coming of spring: Antonín Dvořák’s Scherzo capriccioso and Jean Sibelius’s Spring Song.
More complex than its title implies, the Scherzo capriccioso got a very respectful and energetic interpretation from Demirjian and the orchestra, especially the famous waltz theme. Notable performances came from Jeffery Whaley and the KSO horn section, as well as from a beautiful passage taken by the English horn of Ayca Yayman.
Sibelius’ Spring Song did not fare as well. Its cautious optimism rang a bit hollow after the joyousness and electrifying climax of the Dvořák. But then, every spring has its rainy days.
Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.
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