As ominous skies threatened to dampen the open-air Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium in Brevard, NC, on Sunday, June 25, the Brevard Music Center Orchestra assembled on the stage to perform the music of Johannes Brahms under the direction of Institute Music Director David Effron. "Brahmsfest," as it was billed, also features world-renowned pianist Peter Serkin, who held this year's "Gina Bachauer Artist Chair," in memory of the late pianist who had appeared frequently at the BMC over the course of its history. The dense program included only two works by the German master and yet filled more than ninety minutes. This was the composer at his most long-winded which, for Brahms, connotes neither monotony nor ponderosity . This program promised to bring an exciting and delightful afternoon of music.
The opening work was the vast Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68. Brahms completed this piece in September of 1876 and premiered it in November of that same year. It features many traits obviously gleaned from the work of Beethoven – Hans von Bülow called it Beethoven's Tenth - but the romantic elements we see in Brahms' later works are also evident, though they are early in their development. The opening movement, with its ominous introduction, was performed with poise, but the orchestra had difficulty with balance -the internal dynamics seemed inconsistent in the crescendos causing them to be blurry and out of sync. It must be said, though, that in an open acoustic environment, a lot depends on where the listener is located with respect to the performers. The musicians kept good rhythmic control – aided in some part by an excellent performance from timpanist Conrad Alexander – and made their way to the subtle ending. Unquestionably, the highlight of the Andante second movement (and perhaps the entire work) was the oboe solo, performed by Eric Ohlsson. It was beautifully textured and flanked by dramatic harmonies. In the third movement the woodwinds excelled once again with some delightful clarinet solos and tonal clarity that accentuated Brahms' distinct shades, but the orchestra as a whole once again struggled with articulation, and the tempi were nervous and uneven. The fourth movement combines several musical elements into one long revelatory work. The BMC Orchestra seemed finally to gain focus and togetherness. The strings came alive and led the way. Timpanist Alexander was as effective as he had been in the first movement, and of course the woodwinds were in top form. The rousing conclusion was made more electrifying by the animated Effron as he passionately gesticulated the final booming chords. Overall, it was a respectable performance, but the unfathomable depths of emotion in the work were kept hidden and the music was dry and uninvolved.
To put it plainly, Peter Serkin has to be among the most complete pianists performing on the world circuit today. His balance between virtuosity and humility is without comparison. He places the composer's intentions above his own interpretation and yet finds a way to bring his personality and understanding to anything he performs. Spanning more than four centuries, his repertoire includes many major works for piano but also a tremendous amount of lesser known (and sometimes less accessible) modern pieces, which he champions with the utmost integrity. He joined the BMC Orchestra to perform Brahms' immense Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 83. As the program notes point out, Brahms jokingly called this piece "a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo." Considering that it is approximately an hour long and one of the most extreme tests of stamina for a pianist and an orchestra, I hardly think "tiny" is the proper adjective. In the first movement, and also throughout, one could hear that Serkin was struggling with the acoustic. The piano was deadened by the lack of anything for the sound to reverberate from, and in order to compensate, Serkin had to boom out his pianissimos. It bears repeating, though, that much hinges on where one sits: I was on the right, just on the edge of the opening to the outside, and this could have had some effect on the sound. Other than this lack of contrast, the work went exceptionally well. The third movement, marked Andante, was played with deep expression. Serkin possesses a plethora of articulations that he uses to design the most stunning effects and he used these to craft this dreamy adagio so that it is above reproach. Effron, too, was in good form and generously gave the soloist precedence throughout while remaining true to the score and generating the vital tension. Moving on to the final exam, so to speak, of this mammoth test of endurance, Serkin and Effron both began with a few miscues but regained composure and found their way through the sprawling, dense work. The finale was stunning and demonstrated the full depth of Serkin's virtuosity. Never one to just to blatantly display his own ability, though, he expressed lyricism and elegance. I've heard this concerto played much faster and even with more power but never with such poetry. Yet this finale was not separate from the rest of the work but inexorably tied to the whole. Despite the sound problems, both soloist and conductor revealed an intense, well paced, and unquestionably romantic interpretation.