We came to this place not so much to hear a concert, though a fine one we heard. We came here more to support each other on the day of David Effron's Last Stand. He will no longer lead this outstanding Brevard Music Center summer orchestral music camp (Institute and Festival according to the wizards) as Artistic Director. The mantle has been passed, but his legacy will endure through standards he set for student conduct and artistic achievement. Here, it was just another day at the office for Effron. Showered with retirement honors, congratulations, and recognitions for the past two months, he didn't do anything particularly special on this day except be himself and ask his musicians to dig very deep. He had a little extra help, too.
If there is some measure of the day, it can be found in the production itself. There were 125+ in the orchestra including 37 faculty members plus a 148 voice chorus drawn from the in-house Janiec Opera Company and the Greenville Chorale (just down the road in South Carolina), under the direction of Bringham Vick. There were two soprano soloists, Ann Sauder and Carmen Pelton. All of the brass and percussion were present, and you need these huge talents and big numbers to perform Gustav Mahler’s legendary Symphony No. 2 in C Minor ("Resurrection"). I have heard many concert productions at this place, but I have not heard a complete production with such a sustained high standards, consistent intonation, amazing endurance, a passion for the moment, and a compelling need to serve the master.
True or not, there was an extra edge to this day. The Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium was full and lawn chairs accommodated overflow out on the grass. The stage was full; 273 bodies plus instruments consumed the stage. When Effron arrived nearly half of the people in the audience were standing in tribute and the other half were getting up anyway for the National Anthem. And when this program began we listened with amplified ears, a heightened sense of expectation, and an acute awareness about this special day. Again, no matter, Effron just went to work.
When Mahler, himself, conducted the premiere of the Second Symphony in Berlin on December 13, 1895, it was a major event, mostly due to Mahler's new harmonic language. The public simply hadn;t heard these sounds in music. Also, at that time critics considered his works "too long, too complicated, too bombastic, too neurotic, overly melancholy," and so on. It was Leonard Bernstein who invited the public to reconsider Mahler during the 1960s. His thesis was, "Mahler's music simply hit too close to home, touched too deeply on people's concerns and their fears about life and death. It simply was too true, telling something too dreadful to hear." And it is these things we now listen for and value in this music today. This work is five movements; the first three are instrumental, the fourth is one of his songs, "Urlicht," for contralto voice and orchestra, with the Finale combining the two soloists and a mighty chorus for a triumphant ending.
Against this backdrop, David Effron set out to conduct one more concert, and his palette was rich with opportunity, assets, and vision. He really didn't do much we haven't seen him do in the past. He is an old school conductor of the bel canto style, like Toscanini, who molds his intense understanding of the score with motions in the air and expressions on his face. The whole is there to see and understand for any musician ready to follow. On this day they all followed as though their lives depended upon each and every note sounding exactly as it should.
It worked, and we saw what happens when all the musicians simply follow the directions.
Mahler asks the conductor and orchestra to end with the "greatest possible strength." After huge crescendos from the percussion section alone and a great chorus that begins in the softest dynamic ever written for choir — "Aufersteh'n" ("Rise again, yes you shall rise again") — we finally conclude in a manner best described by the composer: "The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on in endless procession. The trumpets of the apocalypse ring out. All is quiet and blissful. There is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence."
It is hard to imagine a more persuasive and magnificent conclusion to David Effon's tenure at Brevard Music Center. On this day his students, colleagues, and musicians gave their all and let all of us see and hear greatness from the man and the ensemble.