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Imagine arriving at the Brevard Music Center as a student in the Young Artists' Division. You're 14 years old and play an orchestral instrument. In addition to the usual regimen of lessons, recitals, sectionals, chamber music, and attended performances, you are a member of the Transylvania Symphony Orchestra. This means that this season you will be performing four concerts in Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium before a paying audience under three different conductors within six weeks. On this week’s menu, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (”Titan”) under the direction of Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor Keith Lockhart. Many adults would buckle under such hot-house pressure; the youths (ages 14-18) of this remarkable orchestra, however, not only pull it together in short order, but in doing so demonstrate their evolving fitness for a profession notorious for such taxing demands.
This concert featured violin soloist Amy Schwartz Moretti, formerly the concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony and current holder of the Caroline Paul King Violin Chair at Mercer University where she is Director of the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings. In her early 30s, Ms. Moretti already has numerous prizes and awards to her credit, including winning solo prizes in the Irving M. Klein International String Competition and the D’Angelo Young Artist Competition for Strings. She has appeared at many chamber music festivals, and as a concerto soloist with numerous orchestras.
Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K. 219 (the “Turkish” Concerto), composed in 1775 when he was 19, is the most frequently performed of his five violin concerti. The unusual opening of orchestral tutti (Allegro aperto) followed by the soloist’s six-measure material, marked Adagio, is unique in the concerto repertory. The dialogue of phrases generated by the soloist’s theme forms the heart of this elegant movement. The slow and lyrical second movement Adagio is followed by a relatively moderately-paced (Tempo di menuetto) and genteel French rondeau, its central episode a starkly contrasting, stamping “Turkish” diversion in A minor drawn from music composed two years earlier for a ballet, Le gelosie del seraglio. The concerto contains a cadenza in every movement — in these intended breaks in the forward momentum of the work, Moretti most aptly demonstrated her artistry — smoking passagework, languorous, intimately inflected and exquisitely shaped tones, an infallible sense of timing — some of the most exquisite playing I’ve heard this season.
At intermission Michel Robertson, President of the BMC Association, commended the work of the 400+ volunteers who assist year-round in a variety of ways, and they were visible everywhere — as greeters, ushers, and vendors of fund-raising merchandise. Certainly not the least of their efforts is raising money for scholarships; this year a check in the amount of $135,000 was presented to a grateful Maestro Lockhart from the Association.
After intermission the stage filled to near capacity to seat the enlarged orchestra (in excess of 100 players) for Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (“Titan”). Mahler conducted the work’s premiere in Budapest in 1889. No doubt aware of the symphony’s puzzling components, he created a program of descriptive titles for each movement, labeling the work “Titan, a tone poem in symphonic form” in an unsuccessful attempt to associate the work with a novel by Jean Paul. Of course, program music was very popular by this time in Germany, but it only worked if listeners understood the connection between the music and poetry, story, or image. Mahler later abandoned the programmatic idea altogether and revised the symphony, omitting its programmatic titles and its second movement, and publishing the remaining four movements simply as Symphony No. 1.
The first movement opens with the primordial sound of A played in harmonics on the strings, as a sonic backdrop to the chirping birdcalls in the winds. Oddly, we heard real birdsong as an accompaniment in the Mozart concerto, but now all the real birds were silent, as though listening to this incredible effect. As at dawn, the birdcalls increase and crescendo and a melody emerges as if out of a morning mist. Mahler’s orchestration is by turns transparently soloistic and sectional, with sounds amassed into enormous crescendos. The players sounded the most tentative in this movement, as though feeling their way, and the string sections, though of considerable size, never projected enough sound. As in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the scherzo movement comes second, but here it’s a rather rough-hewn Austrian Ländler that morphs at the trio into a more refined waltz. In another nod to Beethoven (Symphony No. 3, second movement), the third movement is a funeral march. The only truly programmatic movement, the music — at times sorrowful, then grotesque — was inspired by a woodcut from an Austrian fairy-tale collection, “How the Animals Bury the Hunter,” by Moritz von Schwind. The procession of mourning animals is depicted musically by a round on “Frère Jacques” in a minor key, but wanders from its funereal affekt with klezmer licks, crashing cymbals and bass drum, and a modulation to a major key, before a return to the original mood. Mahler continues his nature imagery in the last movement, which begins with violent sounds, described by the composer as a “flash of lightning from a dark cloud.” The brass section, heavily featured in the first movement, comes to the fore again to present a striding theme in a massive block of sound. Later in the movement, the first movement’s birdcalls return as the work’s cyclic elements give way to the tumultuous and triumphant finale, played here with selected brass players standing.
The choice of this work for such a young orchestra was a bold and ambitious move on Lockhart’s part, and the gamble paid off handsomely, as the orchestra gave this gargantuan score a careful and credible reading, especially the wind and brass sections. Kudos go to bass soloist of the third movement, Alex Jacobsen, principal horn Steven Cohen, and Ben Campbell, principal trumpet. One can sense a new excitement in the air, and conductor Lockhart was visibly moved by tonight’s performance, mopping his face of sweat and probably a few tears. It’s clear that under his artistic direction, the Brevard Music Center is reaching to new heights.