Exploring “New Worlds”

Part of our jobs as musicians is to get others excited about what we do, whether it’s a pops concert, opera, ballet, masterworks, or a new electronic piece that no one’s ever heard. I’m really excited about the January Masterworks concert this week for several reasons. 

The first piece that we are playing is by the living Kentucky-based female composer (yay!) Rachel Grimes called “Book of Leaves.” It’s always interesting to introduce audiences to contemporary music. One of her works will also be performed at the Big Ears festival in March.  

Composer Rachel Grimes

The second piece is the Korngold Violin Concerto, which we’ve played before, but is not yet a part of the standard repertoire. Mahler pronounced Korngold a genius early in his career, but he was forced to move to the United States to escape the rise of the Nazis. Korngold was kind of a John Williams of his time and he wrote the soundtracks for many famous movies of the 1930’s and 40’s, including “Captain Blood” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” His movie scores are thrilling, and he was a brilliant orchestrator. The violin concerto is virtuosic, but both the orchestra and the soloist sound great due to his knowledge of how to write well for orchestra. This should be a terrific performance. Soloist is Tessa Lark, a Kentucky native and passionate chamber musician who has traveled the world as a solo violinist.

Tessa Lark, violin

Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dances” and ‘New World Symphony’ are standard works that audiences in Knoxville hear on a regular basis. This time, they’ll feature musicians from the Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra performing alongside the KSO. It’s fun to get to work with students and to watch them figure out how to play on a professional level. For one thing, a professional orchestra is louder than school groups and the rehearsals tend to be more intense since every minute costs money. It’s great to have the energy and enthusiasm of new people playing with the orchestra, so I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with these talented musicians. Tickets and info here. Concerts are Thursday, Jan. 18 and Friday, Jan. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Tennessee Theatre.

KSO rehearses with KSYO members for Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony No. 9.

Chat with the Conductor – Part I

Get to know conductor, coffee drinker and crossword puzzle enthusiast Aram Demirjian in this Q&A post, Part I of II.

1. Describe the orchestra in 3 words.

Dynamic, Devoted, Inspiring

2. What is one example you have witnessed that demonstrates the Knoxville Symphony’s impact on the community?

One of the most powerful statements I have observed about the KSO’s impact happened in a NICU room at UT Medical Center, when our assistant principal violist Eunsoon Corliss played quiet children’s melodies for a 10-day old preemie, as a part of our Music and Wellness Program, and the vibrations of her instrument helped steady the young child’s heart rate. There is truly no audience too small for music, and I am proud of how broadly we serve our community, whether it is performing for 10,000 on July 4th, or one small baby on a Tuesday in February.

3. In addition to being made up of talented musicians, the orchestra is also made up of attorneys, nurses, parents, authors, marathon runners, professors and realtors. What is one thing you wish audiences or community members knew about this specific group of people?

I want the audience to know that each and every one of our musicians works tirelessly at their craft, and all of them — even those who are full-time KSO musicians — are deeply engaged in our community in a broad range of activities beyond the KSO, whether that be through teaching, performing with other ensembles or working outside of the musical field. Among our “per service” players (which basically means they aren’t on stage with us quite as often as our full time “core” players), there are many people who spend their days in an entirely different discipline — but all are professionally-trained and excellent at their instruments, they just decided to go in another direction for their primary employment. It demonstrates their inspiring love for music and their sincere commitment to the KSO that even though they might spend most of their time at a law firm, office or hospital, some weeks they follow up a long day of work with 2-5 hours of orchestra rehearsal, and maintain a professional level of excellence on their instrument.

4. How about one thing you wish people knew about YOU, and about being a full-time musician? 

Being a full-time musician is just that — FULL time! One thing I find that people are always impressed by is how quickly professional orchestras can prepare performances. We all remember high school band or orchestra, where we spent three months preparing for a big concert at the end of the semester. But sometimes KSO audience members will ask me, “How long did you rehearse for this performance?” The answer is, we rarely have more than four rehearsals to prepare a concert, and more often than not, we perform after just ONE rehearsal. That’s because so much of the work musicians do happens outside of our “office,” through personal practice, or in my case, score study. I always tell people that 80% of the work of preparing an orchestra concert happens before anybody walks into the first rehearsal. Professional musicians come into rehearsal having already learned the music — the rehearsal is for putting all the pieces together.

In the case of conducting, I think a lot of people assume you’re up there waving your hands and having a good time (and it IS beyond fun!). But a conductor’s primary responsibility is to understand every layer of the music — we spend most of our time studying orchestra scores the same way an English professor would study a work of literature, spending countless hours analyzing and interpreting the composer’s markings so that we can help coalesce a harmonious, unified vision of the music for the players and the audience.

5. What qualities would the perfect musician possess (stamina, crispness, etc) if that person were to exist?

In no particular order: energy, discipline, professionalism, precision, flexibility, humility, optimism, curiosity, open-heartedness, open-mindedness and generosity.

Stay tuned for Part II!

It’s the Most Musical Time of the Year

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

For most businesses, planning for the holidays begins early, even before Autumn. So in October and November, people ask the musicians if we’ve started working on the music for the Christmas concert. Because we don’t see the music until about ten days before the first concert, it’s exciting to look through our folders and see what’s new and what’s fun to play…And what needs to be practiced around The Nutcracker, church performances, shopping, and teaching.

Each December, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra plays the enchanting music of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, The Nutcracker, in the orchestra pit while the dancers of the Appalachian Ballet Company dazzle us from stage with their intricate and poised movements and their extravagant costumes. This annual performance is certainly a KSO tradition, with weekend performances at both the Civic Auditorium (Dec. 1-2) and upcoming at Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville (Dec. 6-8). 

Photos courtesy of Appalachian Ballet Company

It’s a real privilege to be able to be part of someone’s holiday plans and to see and hear excited families filing into any concert hall. Everyone comes to the concerts to experience the warmth and magic of holiday music, to have fun with their families, and it’s great to hear the excitement of the little kids in the audience.

View from the pit at the Nutcracker, courtesy of KSO horn player Kelsey Bentley.

View of our Nutcracker conductor, Sande MacMorran.

Starting December 11, the KSO (and LOTS of other folks) will begin rehearsals for the KSO’s Annual Clayton Holiday Concert. Those performances are at the Civic Auditorium Dec. 14, 15, and 16. Tickets and info here.

The Orchestra will be back ON stage for these concerts. We are grateful to be able to work with the Knoxville Choral Society –and they always sound great. We couldn’t do the concert without them and they consistently show up prepared, gracious and ready to do whatever we need. To see who else is joining us on stage…you’ll have to come see for yourself!

Happy Holidays and enjoy the season!

Holiday Greetings from the Maestro

December means tradition, family and music.

As we renew our KSO tradition with the 32nd Annual Clayton Holiday Concerts, we are immensely grateful for you, our audience, and for our extended musical family here in Knoxville, from the Knoxville Choral Society to Go! Contemporary Dance Works, and our sponsors, the Clayton Family Companies, especially Jim Clayton.

Please join us Dec. 14 (7:30 p.m.), Dec. 15 (3 & 7:30 p.m.), or Dec. 16 (3 p.m.) for a wonderful gathering of music and merriment.

One of the most heartwarming and reassuring aspects of the holiday season is the feeling that great seasonal music is never more than a turn of the radio dial away, and our concerts this year evoke that warm, nostalgic feeling you get when listening to the sounds of Christmas on the radio, whether you tune in on your daily commute, at home while trimming the tree or on your phone while doing last-minute holiday shopping.

This December, we are so grateful to have radio host and emcee extraordinaire, Frank Murphy of Classic Hits 93.1 FM WNOX, featured throughout our Clayton Holiday program to help us play the hits, from the oldies to the songs of today, as we convert the Civic Auditorium into Knoxville’s equivalent of Radio City Music Hall. Helping us along that journey are our friends in the Knoxville Choral Society and the phenomenally talent Go! Dancers, plus a special appearance by two big stars from up north…!

Events like the Clayton Holiday Concerts are so important, as they give us the opportunity to pause during this busy time, enjoy beauty in the company of our loved one and come together with our entire community. Tickets start at just $16 for adults and $8.50 for children. Get tickets here.

Music has the power to bring people together, and we are so grateful that you have made the KSO a part of your family’s holiday tradition.

“The song in our hearts is the magic of the season; it’s a gift we all can share.”

We hope the KSO helps you find the song in your own heart this season and all the year round.



Casting a vision for the next three years

KSO announces extension of Aram Demirjian contract

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra announced on Monday, Nov. 12 that the KSO Board of Directors has extended Maestro Aram Demirjian’s contract as Music Director for three years beyond the current three year contract that began in 2016. This extension takes Maestro Demirjian through the 2021-2022 season.

Highlights of the first three seasons of Demirjian’s Tenure

Seen & Heard In the Concert Hall

When selecting musical programming, Aram renewed the focus on American works and highlighted works by female composers. Audiences have heard music of William Grant Still, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, plus contemporary composers Christopher Theofanidis, Jonathan Leshnoff, Michael Schacter, and Mason Bates. Works by female composers include Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes, Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, plus the upcoming performances of Rachel Grimes’ Book of Leaves in January 2019, Jesse Montgomery’s “Banner” in April 2019, and Conni Ellisor’s Blackberry Winter in 2020, a piece for solo mountain dulcimer and string orchestra (already heard at a KSO community performance at Second Presbyterian Church for their 200th Anniversary). In Sept. 2017, the KSO commissioned Michael Schachter’s “Overture to Knoxville” and performed the world premiere.

The number of Masterworks subscriptions sold is up 12% since prior to Aram’s arrival. Subscription sales to the KSO’s Masterworks Series are the highest they have been since the 2011-12 season. The number of Masterworks single tickets sold increased 24% in Aram’s first full season as music director, which was the 2016-17 season. That level of sales was sustained in the 2017-18 season.

KSO goes “UnStaged.”

In the past two symphony seasons (2016-17 and 2017-18), the KSO created a new series of multi-sensory, music-centric events taking place in unconventional venues. Aram conducted the KSO at breweries, airplane hangars, with event themes surrounding yoga, craft beer, and visual art. The first three events were each well-received and brought in new audiences. The next UnStaged event is April 18, 2019 at the Knoxville Museum of Art and fittingly entitled, Vision.

Candide – a Centennial Celebration

In a landmark collaboration with the Clarence Brown Theatre, the KSO and CBT presented Leonard Bernstein’s Candide as part of the Bernstein Centenary celebration. Aram conducted the KSO with a nationally-auditioned cast of performers from the opera and musical theater worlds in a total of 17 fully-staged performances for more than 10,000 patrons on the CBT main stage. With the orchestra placed on stage, Demirjian was at the center of the action, even entering into it at certain moments in the plot.



What’s next?

SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was selected as one of four North American orchestras to be featured in the 2020 SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras at the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. Not only will the entire Knoxville Symphony Orchestra perform a concert in D.C. on the national stage, but two community programs, a Music and Wellness visit and an UnStaged “craft beer” themed event, will take place in the DC community bringing some Knoxville style and flavor to our nation’s capital.

Annual Symphony Ball

The Knoxville Symphony’s signature fundraiser has grown in attendance, auction items, and FUN! Save the date for Saturday, March 30, 2019 for the annual symphony ball, this year with the theme “Broadway Melody” presented by the Knoxville Symphony League. By incorporating a performance by the Knoxville Symphony plus Aram as the emcee, participants can expect an evening of dinner, dancing, and celebrating the symphony in style!

KSO Commission 2020: Cycle of Life

American Glass Artist Richard Jolley’s installation, Cycle of Life, was installed in the Knoxville Museum of Art in 2014. Cycle of Life reveals Richard’s exceptional artistic rigor and vision—an aesthetically stunning masterwork that is also an engineering marvel. Richard Jolley’s work explores the human body in formats ranging from colored glass “line drawings” to brightly colored figures and totems. Thanks to an important partnership with the Knoxville Museum of Art, the KSO will commission a brand new piece of music composed by Michael Schachter inspired by the Cycle of Life. Violinist Philippe Quint will be the featured soloist on this work for Violin and Orchestra. The premiere is set for May 2020 on the KSO Masterworks stage and will create a musical experience inspired by the seven-part narrative of Jolley’s work, allowing patrons to be immersed in multiple art forms.

About Aram Demirjian

As the 8th Music Director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Demirjian is deeply involved in a substantial breadth of artistic, education and community outreach initiatives with the goal of ensuring that East Tennesseans of all ages, backgrounds and circumstances have access to great symphonic music. He served previously as the Associate Conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, and he is a sought after guest conductor with orchestras across the country, including The Philadelphia Orchestra, with which he works frequently. Demirjian is the winner of the 2017 Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistance Award and the 2011 Robert J. Harth Conducting Prize from the Aspen Music Festival.


“The energy Demirjian brought to Knoxville is evident,” said Board President, Russ Watkins. “The past two seasons have been filled to the brim with exciting musical programming and performances, and thoughtful engagement in the community. Demirjian has a presence on and off stage that welcomes audience members, friends, and patrons alike to engage with him and the Orchestra. We are eager and enthusiastic to have him continue implementing his vision for the KSO over the next three years.”

A new face and a job well done: KSO Staff News

KSO Staff News and Acknowledgements


Rachel Dellinger (KSO Director of Communications) has been named a 2018 Honoree for
KnoxBiz.com’s 40 Under 40. She is responsible for media and community relations, web and social media, and public relations/marketing efforts for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Since 2012, she has measurably increased engagement on Knoxville Symphony’s social media platforms, implemented  message strategies to convey the KSO’s community impact and reach, and spearheaded the creation of the Young Friends of the Symphony, a membership group intended to engage existing/potential  audience members by offering special events and discounted tickets to its members.

A Knoxville native, Rachel graduated from the University of Tennessee with a Bachelor’s degree in Communication where her passion for publicizing the arts was fostered. Rachel has served on several nonprofit boards including the Young Professionals of Knoxville (2016 President), Knoxville Rotaract Club (secretary & charter member), Tennesseans for the Arts (East TN Vice President), and the Tennessee Stage Company (marketing chair). She is passionate about connecting, supporting and working with people in any capacity and enjoys grammar, her dog Wally, and live performance of any  kind.




Nathan McGhee has joined the Knoxville Symphony staff as the customer service representative/administrative assistant, a role which  includes ticket sales and reception duties for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. He is one of three full-time staff members in the Box Office, provides general office support, and acts as the liaison between staff and the KSO Board of Directors.

Nathan joined the non-profit world in 2010 where he served as Project Specialist and Education Coordinator at Morristown’s Rose Center Council for the Arts. With this position, Nathan created new fundraising projects along with a new after school program for the Center that is still alive today. In 2015, Nathan created the Humane Education for Youth program for the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley, which saw over 8,000 students in its first operating year.  Nathan believes that volunteer work is vital in communities, having served on the Board for the Morristown Theatre Guild, tutoring for local Knox County Schools, and volunteering at rural animal shelters in East Tennessee. Nathan is ecstatic to be joining the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and to be getting back to work in the Arts. The positivity and enthusiasm he has seen during his brief start with the KSO has been deeply inspiring and refreshing! Outside of work and volunteering, you can most likely find Nathan performing with Knoxville or Morristown theatre companies or fulfilling his many uncle responsibilities.



The first week on the job (for Nathan), the two showed their Halloween spirit at the KSO Young People’s Concerts on Oct. 31, 2018 as they welcomed 2,200 students to the Symphony.

Four Notes

Four notes.

That’s how many notes it takes to get a gasp out of the audiences when we play music from Harry Potter. It’s such a wonderful moment and it makes us remember the power of music.

The KSO performs the Young People’s Concerts annually at the Civic Auditorium for more than 8,000 elementary students (That’s 79 large school groups, 45 small groups  (home school and private schools), from 13 counties, 1 group from Kentucky). It’s one of the biggest ways we serve the most kids with music in one setting.

It’s fun to play for the kids because they are always excited. They get to be out of school, ride a bus and when the lights go down, they ooh and ahh in anticipation. We’re playing a lot different styles of music which helps to keep us on our toes, and this year, there was even a story written by an audience member that goes along with one of the pieces.







Musicians have to plan most of their days so that they have a lot of energy in the evening for rehearsals and performances. The Young People’s Concerts can be a challenge to play because the concerts start at 9:30. There are usually many sleepy musicians backstage, especially if we are playing two performances. That’s why we’re always grateful for the Knoxville Symphony League volunteers who bring breakfast. It always help to wake us up and keep us going for the second show.



Musician Spotlight: Stringy Business

KSO Cellist and Owner of Wilhite Strings rents instruments to area students, furthers their music education


Bruce Wilhite has played cello with the Knoxville Symphony for more than 25 years. He was a full-time core member from 1980-2003 at which point he transitioned to a per service member of the cello section.  He opened his shop, Wilhite Strings, in 1997. Because he was also an adjunct professor of cello at the University of Tennessee at the time, the shop was opened with retirement in mind. About his time, Bruce says, “I had to make a choice, because there are only so many hours in the day!”

Wilhite Strings is a full service violin shop, providing instruments for sale as well as for rent. “I have three full-time luthiers who can do almost any repair. We specialize in violin family instruments (violin, viola, cello and bass). If you have a band instrument, don’t come here because we won’t know how to fix it!”

Most of Wilhite Strings’ rentals are for school children. The length of time a student rents an instrument varies, and Wilhite goes to the schools to provide exchanges when a student grows out of a small size and needs to “move up.” The shop provides rentals to the Knoxville, Maryville, Oak Ridge, Kingsport and Johnson City school systems. Bruce says they also do repair work for players at UT and ETSU. There are approximately 1,100 rentals out currently and the shop keeps instruments in stock for sale.

“I knew Knoxville didn’t have a real violin shop. There is a fine instrument maker, Kelvin Scott, in the area and he makes great instruments, and that’s what he wants to do and is world renowned for it. What we’re trying to do is serve the community by providing string instruments and allowing more kids to have the chance to play music.”

What we’re trying to do is serve the community by providing string instruments and allowing more kids to have the chance to play music.” – Bruce Wilhite, owner of Wilhite Strings and KSO cellist

Bruce’s father was one of the original violinists in the Knoxville Symphony. While in the 5th grade at Belle Morris Elementary in North Knoxville, Bruce had the opportunity to choose an instrument. Wanting to be slightly different from his father, Bruce chose the cello and played for 2 years, but stopped because there were no junior high and high school orchestra programs. Wilhite’s parents then arranged for him to take private lessons through high school.

“I started at UT in Engineering. Back then, I had an aunt who gave her nieces and nephews a trip to Europe when they each graduated high school. I decided to do a music study trip. So I spent the summer in Salzburg and took classes and cello lessons. I was really revved up to play music after that.”  After one quarter, he switched to music as a cello major. He received a Bachelor’s in Music at UT and a Master’s from the Cincinnati Conservatory. He completed a one-year artist’s program before returning to Knoxville and winning his cello audition for the Knoxville Symphony.

Wilhite Strings also services violins and bow repairs to members of the KSO. Many of the core players in the KSO teach private lessons on the side. Bruce says one of the benefits the KSO brings to the community is attracting high level professionals to teach our kids. He says he can tell the overall level of string education has gone up considerably since the KSO hired full-time players.

“The ancient Greeks put music on the same level as they did mathematics and languages, and for good reason. They knew the developmental benefits of the mental stimulation as well as physical ability. They understood that. Unfortunately today, not all education programs understand that.”

Bruce believes it is important for high schools to offer an orchestra program. “What’s important, in the end, is not that everyone becomes a great soloist. Playing music is supportive of brain development and hand-eye coordination. And a student’s hard work and discipline is reflected in their GPA.”

View the full video interview with Bruce here.

Board of Directors draws 2 more community leaders

View the KSO Board of Directors here.

The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors has grown by two this season. New members include recently-elected Patricia Bible, Founder/CEO of KaTom Restaurant Supply and Christian Corts, Regional VP of BB&T.

A native of Greenville, S.C., Corts received his bachelor’s degree in finance from Samford University. He was as a board member for The Children’s Museum of the Upstate; a trustee of South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities; and is a graduate of Leadership South Carolina. He has served as a trustee of the Houston Grand Opera and as a banking advisory board member of the University of Houston, Bauer School of Business. Since 2008, Christian Corts has held various positions with BB&T in Winston-Salem, N.C., Houston, TX and South Carolina as a regional corporate banker and regional corporate banking manager. In March of 2018, Corts was named Tennessee Regional President, based out of Knoxville.



Patricia Bible has grown a company founded out of necessity in a home garage in Russellville in the 1980s into the 14th-largest firm in its industry. KaTom Restaurant Supply provides just about everything you need to start a food-service business, except for the food. The Kodak-based company, now run with the assistance of Patricia’s two children Charley and Paula, was recently named to the Inc. magazine list of America’s fastest-growing companies for the tenth consecutive year.

Patricia loves to stay active and enjoys spending time with friends and family, including 8-year-old grandson Jack. She is also an active member of the Carson-Newman University Board of Trustees, Sevier County Economic Development Council Board of Directors, University of Tennessee Chancellor’s Associates, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital Development Advisory Board, United Way of Sevier County Board of Directors, and Committee of 200, an international organization dedicated to advancing women’s leadership in business.

“Music allows an opening in one’s soul that compliments the pureness of our existence,” said Bible. “A thriving orchestra benefits our community and enhances the greatness of our next generation. Additionally, music education offers a complimentary gift to all other components of our journey through life.

Music Under Stalin’s Shadow

Music composed under Stalin’s regime provides emotional escape

Most people have deadlines for work, an annoying boss, and feel underpaid. The Soviet era composers, artists and writers, including Dmitri
Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev had to deal with all of that plus the fear of winding up in a labor camp or being shot for displeasing the dictator Joseph Stalin with their music. When Shostakovich wrote his 5th symphony, he needed a piece that was acceptable to Stalin because his previous works had been criticized by Stalin. Luckily for Shostakovich, Stalin approved of the piece.

Most symphony players think the piece is a masterwork. There are wonderful dramatic moments and beautiful, heartbreaking moments.
There’s a great march in the first movement, a unusual semi-waltz in the second, a haunting third movement, and a fourth movement that ranges from a martial opening to a slow, sobering section. At the end of the section, it feels like the clouds open and things will eventually be all right. I always thought of the ending of the last movement as triumphant. I’d grown up listening to and performing the last movement as an upbeat triumphant end to a great symphony.

And then, I heard the Dallas Symphony play the piece, conducted by the composer’s son, Maxim. He dragged out the ending with a tempo that for me, was painfully slow. I hated it, and thought that the piece had been ruined. But Maxim claimed that his father had always wanted the final movement to feel dragged out as though people under the Communist regime were being forced to celebrate. In other words, it was a celebration that was too long and too slow to be natural.

So which way is better? Check out these two versions of the 4th  movement and decide for yourself. (Start the first version at about the 7 minute mark.) (Start the second one at about the 42:50 minute mark.) Which way will we perform it? You’ll have to come to the concert to find out.

Tchaikovsky predated the Stalinist era, although he had his own internal demons to reckon with. He was a master of melody, and left us with two great ballets that are performed frequently, six symphonies, and two concertos that get played frequently. And it doesn’t get much better than the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. It’s a great concerto, and I’m looking forward to playing it again Oct. 18 & 19 at the Tennessee Theatre. Tickets here.

It’s a pleasure to be part of an orchestra that weaves its way into the life of the community where it lives. If you weren’t there for the “UnStaged” concert at The Mill and Mine, we played for people doing yoga along with the music. The next night, we were part of a loud and enthusiastic concert of “Women Rock.” Two very different audiences and performances, but both were exciting in their own way. Thanks for having us in your lives.