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Much is being made this season about David Effron and his last year as Conductor and Artistic Director of the Brevard Music Center. During the intermission of this concert, a portrait was unveiled showing the expansive maestro in summer white. The portrait, by local artist Richard Albyn, will commemorate Effron's eleven-year tenure and his new title as Artistic Director Laureate, which takes effect upon his retirement. The image will hang in perpetuity in the Alumni House. Also, the BMC Board has established a Principal Conductor's Chair in his honor, with a $500,000 endowment as security. Keith Lockhart, Artistic Advisor Designate, will be the first to occupy the position. Then, no less musical luminary than Joshua Bell told us how honored he was to be on the series in this final year of honor. He said he had performed many times with Effron, the first being when he was 14 year old, "just a few years ago."
But somewhere in all this we need a concert, and I'm happy to report we had a pretty good one, namely: J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with a pick-up group of a dozen + strings including double bass; Max Bruch's G minor violin Concerto, Op. 26/1, with Bell up; and, just to give the entire orchestra a sporting opportunity, Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky.
The music of Bach has a hallowed place at any music festival. I recall last year when Effron programmed the famous “Air on a G String” for full orchestra, then unfolded it at what seemed an unusually slow tempo. It turned out to be the perfect pace to properly assimilate the counterpoint, and most of us were out of breath at the end. This edition of the 3rd Brandenburg, the one with the two chord middle movement, was conducted by Andres Moran, a conducting student of Effron at Indiana University. However, it seemed a waste of good energy because this small size ensemble really doesn’t need a Driver. Moran did a fine job though, and a buttery, tasto sound ruled the stage. There we no train wrecks.
Thence to the featured headliner; Joshua Bell, big-shot violin player amid a very crowded field of big-shot violin players these days, with a return engagement at BMC and the boyish good looks to pass as an older grad student. Trim in all black, and sporting a Stradivarius violin from the "good wood" period, he arrived with the demeanor of a veteran performer; hitting the marks on stage for the next gig, he shook hands with Concertmaster J. Patrick Rafferty, bowed to the audience, nodded to Effron, and then got down to business.
I've heard the piece but, frankly, I didn't care for it much, and I'm sorry the originally-scheduled concerto by Samuel Barber wasn't played instead. Max Bruch hasn't spent a lot of time in my ears, yet this performance got my attention in a new way. Bell was committed from the first note, playing from memory and passionately absorbed in each phrase. Effron directed the orchestra with insight and seamlessly kept them from stepping over the line. Ultimately Effron also owns the room; to observe his attention to a soloist, how he listens to the player and understands time in the moment, is to grasp how all these elements should come together.
The audience cheered and stood through three curtain calls when finally Bell returned, prepared to perform an encore. In brief remarks he said he had not planned to play a solo, then spoke with affection of Effron, the Music Center, and this "amazing orchestra," which drew more cheers. He then stormed through a medley of themes from The Red Violin composed by John Corigliano. This performance satisfied the full house.
After intermission, the orchestra assembled for Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and here we should separate out from the general population those needing extra oxygen. Even a cursory consideration of the score is enough to give an educated person hives. Stravinsky set new marks for counterpoint and polyphony in this landmark ballet. As a concert work, it tends to separate out the men from the boys, in a manner of speaking. You need a disciplined orchestra and an enlightened conductor to make a convincing performance of this work. Of course, Effron directed his musicians with precision, focus, a clear stick, and early cues when necessary. This was a memorable performance on many levels. Most notable was the general strength of the musicians at the end of the demanding program.
While the arena of classical music has spawned many familiar melodies, it is difficult to imagine use of Stravinsky's jangling rhythms and spiky harmony as the basis for popular music. Yet, Vanilla Fudge covered Lee Hazelwood's "Some Velvet Morning" in the early 70s using themes from Part I of The Rite (probably "The Ritual of Abduction," but I'm not sure). The quartet used drums (a double bass kit), bass, electric guitar, and a Hammond B3 to build up the density in a rather esoteric and ultimately forgotten cover that deserves another listen.
Brevard Music Center is winding down toward a finish with Mahler on August 5. This orchestra sounds up to the task, and we'll be there to report the event.