Big Ears 2019, which takes over downtown Knoxville March 21-24, joins with ECM to celebrate the record label’s 50th anniversary of standing at the intersection of excellence and exploring new frontiers in both jazz and classical music, the two most prominent music forms that have been the mainstay of Knoxville’s world-renowned music and arts festival.
Some 20 concerts featuring ECM legends such as The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Meredith Monk, Carla Bley and Jack DeJohnette, along with the younger generation of groundbreakers such as Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, Avishai Cohen and Shai Maestro will take Big Ears stages during the festival.
As a whole, this year’s Big Ears will present more than 100 concerts over four days. That’s way too many for anyone to attend all of them. Fortunately, it has become a Big Ears tradition for surprise concerts to pop up with performances that can happen only at Big Ears.
Many of the artists who come to perform at Big Ears go to each other’s concerts. Conversations and spontaneous jam sessions take place. Often those encounters result in artists being invited to perform on others’ concerts, or entirely unprogrammed, serendipitous events that happen on short notice.
Since Big Ears began, I’ve heard from classical music aficionados that the festival is too far into the avant-garde fringe or offers nothing for them. There may have been some truth in that view for fans whose tastes don’t come any closer into current time than the 1940s. But several of the world’s top classical music composers, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Gavin Bryars have performed their music at Big Ears.
Recent Pulitzer Prize winners in classical music John Luther Adams, winner of the 2014 prize, and Julia Wolfe, winner of the 2015 prize, are Big Ears alumni and had their prize-winning compositions performed.
This year, Caroline Shaw, composer, singer and violinist, is coming to Big Ears with her group, Roomful of Teeth, and will perform her 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition “Partita for 8 Voices,” written for Roomful of Teeth.
Roomful of Teeth will also be performing Big Ears alum Bryce Dessner’s large-scale work “Triptych (Eyes of One on Another),” a performance piece that features the remarkable photography of Robert Mapplethorpe.
“Triptych” will make its world premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic shortly before coming to Big Ears. From here it goes to the Kennedy Center, then to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s a mark of Big Ears’ reputation in the world that Knoxville’s performance is at the beginning of “Triptych’s” performance schedule.
This year’s edition of Big Ears also will feature a major ballet for the first time. The Nashville Ballet is coming to perform “Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux,” with choreography by Paul Vasterling and music by Rhiannon Giddens, a Big Ears alumna herself. Giddens will perform at Big Ears this year with Francesco Turrisi.
Big Ears will also be presenting its first opera: Kentucky-based pianist and composer Rachel Grimes returns to this year’s festival with her breathtaking folk opera and film “The Way Forth.” Grimes’ “Book of Leaves for Orchestra” was performed by the Knoxville Symphony on the January Masterworks pair of concerts.
A major event this year will be St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral choir’s performance of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s 1982 masterpiece “Passio,” a 70-minute work about the arrest, trial, sentencing and crucifixion of Jesus.