I had a fully fueled Gulfstream IV on the ramp at the Asheville airport, a filed flight plan, and a box suite at Wimbledon all ready when John W. Lambert called my cell number calmly jabbering about some concert in Brevard. He needed "the story." I agreed, first as a favor because he is after all Mr. Arts in North Carolina*, but mostly because I had read that the orchestra would be playing the Shostakovich Festival Overture, Op. 96. I figure I can still get to Wimbledon in time for the finals.
At the published 7:30 p.m. start time, the ambient temperature in the Whittington-Phohl Auditorium, the outdoor open-sided shed, was 83 degrees, and the humidity was a comfortable 54% as BMC President John Candler walked on stage to greet a near-capacity (1,800) audience. While proudly pointing out BMC's "2005 Summer Institute and Festival" moniker, a slight change of language from previous years now intended to fine-tune their product, I frantically searched the program for any reference to Shostakovich as pen, notepad, and magazine fell to the ground.
Soon Concertmaster Thomas Joiner (Furman University) tuned up the band, and then conductor David Effron beamed aboard wheeling around the stage in large arcs looking for all the world like a New York City street corner wristwatch hustler fresh from a men's fashion spring formal runway and half crazed by too much Starbucks. Suddenly a cue set off the snare drum and – as I retrieved items from the floor – we were deep into the "Star Spangled Banner" before I realized what was happening. Everyone was standing – the playing orchestra, too – but the thing to know about all this is that this audience can sing! They were in tune, knew four-part harmony, some made that high E flat at the end, and they knew all the words – unlike the common NBA, MLB, or NASCAR experience. I was stunned.
There were many additions to the printed version of the program – but no Shostakovich. The whole thing broke down into two basic categories: works for orchestra and show or opera tunes. All were chestnuts, of course, except for a conventional baroque concerto and this first guy I'd never heard of – Reinhold Glière (also Reyngol'd Moritsevish Glier, 1875-1956), whose "Sailors Dance," from the ballet The Red Poppy, was a clear display of Russian-influenced rhythms with folk roots. One phrase has a set of variations, and horns were on time, in tune, and a treat to hear. When I looked up the guy everything made sense. He was one of the first Soviet composers known for grand-scale and large forms, monumental images, and brilliant aural imagination. He is considered a founder of Soviet ballet.
Next came the baroque Concerto in D by Italian Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), featuring BMC faculty member William Campbell on trumpet. Destined by his parents for a monastic career, Tartini, schooled under clerics, had violin instruction early, and in 1708 renounced the cloister; he was known principally for his prowess as a swordsman. Confused yet? Listen, he married in 1710, coming into serious conflict with the church (due to his concealed clerical status), then turned around and signed up for secret asylum in the monastery of Friars Minor Conventual at Assisi, where he supposedly studied music (perhaps composition). In 1714, he was playing in two bands while composing. Sound familiar? The musician's life hasn't changed much over the years. But I do wonder about the poor wife....
Anyway, as there aren't many baroque horn concertos (if any at all), this work is a transcription, probably from violin, in fast-slow-fast format. First impressions are important, and Campbell went straight to work, nailing all the opening figures with a full, rich sound and clear articulation. The entrances and all the passagework were crisp and professional, not overbearing; the ornaments were solid, as were many demanding figures; the cadenza was straight out of the book, and the ensemble was solid. He played what appeared to be a small period horn – but with valves.
Next came two vocal works, one published in the program and the second a surprise announcement from stage. We'll talk about those later, but here it's worth mentioning Maestro Effron leaning on the conductor's banister and chatting away like your old Jewish uncle about humorous program anecdotes and historical references. He's warm, inviting, smart, and factual, and he was literally making the music we heard. But there is also a slightly disheveled quality that is particularly endearing. After each work, he checked with the librarian to get the score for whatever was next, waiting long enough to applaud the soloist while searching for the microphone and his notes. More later....
The pre-intermission work was "Il Convegno," by Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86), with Steve and Jonathan Cohen performing on clarinets. Ponchielli wrote ballet, cantatas, sacred solo and ensemble pieces, vocal chamber music, instrumental works, and thirteen operas, for which he is best remembered. Oddly, his history and works are littered with words like "...student project, early career..., disappointing, scheduled but not performed, ignored by the press, revised, [and] left incomplete..., " yet he was a productive craftsman. Scholar and thematic cataloger Licia Sirch believes that his lack of success in opera was due to the pressure of trying to please his publisher, Ricordi, and his lack of good librettists. He became the band director in Picenza and then Cremona, and his list of works for band is extensive. When Ponchielli died, all Italy mourned, and his birth city (Paderno Fasolaro) changed its name to Paderno Ponchielli(!).
The edition of this work is by national clarinet treasure Fred Ormond, who told me his research revealed the piece was "written in 1856 or -7..., right after [the composer's] graduation from Conservatorio di Musica, Milano." It is crafted from "all original themes of that time, but he may have used similar ideas in one of his obscure operas. My edition is based on the manuscript at Ricordi and some copies available various Italian libraries."
Steve Cohen is the clarinetist on the BMC faculty, and his son Jonathan is 16 years old and in his second year as a BMC student. Together they performed this flashy period piece – it's basically an operatic duo – with relish and skill. Both displayed matching tone and near-faultless execution of extended scales, trills, and arpeggio figures in precise and almost familial ensemble. The student body cheered their debut performance.
After intermission there was another vocal insertion, followed by Camille Saint-Saëns' "The Swan," one of fourteen movements from Le carnaval des animaux. Composed in 1886, this set of orchestral character pieces describe various animals by aurally mimicking the sounds they make or characterizing the way they move. It's scored for two solo pianos and a small orchestra of flute, piccolo, clarinet, xylophone, glass harmonica (usually played by celesta or glockenspiel), and strings. "The Swan" provided an opportunity to show off the entire BMC cello section with piano and harp. Eight celli turned toward the audience and from memory performed the perfectly lush and gliding work with a rich, resonant timbre and what sounded like coordinated vibratos – not an everyday occurrence!
The final instrumental work on the program was Leroy Anderson's "Fiddle Faddle," featuring the entire BMC violin section. Here again the players turned toward the audience and played from memory while standing. Concertmaster Joiner led the way in perfect synchronization, intonation, and dynamics. The middle segment was played pizzicato, accompanied by two spoon players who dashed on and off the stage. (It was not that great, but cute....)
There was one instrumental encore – Johannes Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 1, absolutely the last work of the evening. After so long on stage and so many diverse works it was inspiring to hear the orchestra sound as precise, rich, and in tune as it was in the opening works.
Interspersed among each half of the program were show and opera tunes, giving vocal members of the Janiec Opera Company a chance to stretch. The Center conducts auditions for vocal students year round at the national level, and the single most striking aspect of the results of this talent search is the sheer maturity of the voices. If you closed your eyes, it would be difficult to distinguish these vocalists from more established and well-known personalities. It's when you open your eyes and see such young kids doing the work that you begin to wonder if you're seeing things. Here's the list:
Giacomo Puccini: Madame Butterfly: Flower Duet ("Tutti i fior"): Jennifer Moore and Joanna Gates, sopranos.
Georges Bizet: The Pearl Fishers: "Au Fond du Temple Saint": Jack Beetle, tenor, and Ryan Goessi, baritone.
Jacques Offenbach: Tales Of Hoffmann: Barcarolle: Stephanie Harris and Rebecca Comerford, sopranos. (Note: This was Offenbach's last show, and the production was in prep when he died – three months too early to witness its reception.)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni: "La ci darem la mano": Heather Phillips, soprano, and Adam Lau, baritone.
Leonard Bernstein: West Side Story: "Gee Officer Krupke": Matthew Young and Andrew Hill, baritones, and Nathan Oakes and Jonathan Zeng, tenors.
Harvey Schmidt: The Fantasticks (lyrics by Tom Jones): "Try to Remember": Kevin Murphy, baritone.
Grand finale (vocal encore): Frank Loesser: Guys and Dolls: "Sit Down, You're Rock'in the Boat" – with thirteen singers on stage!
Finally, a word about the conductor: Effron is particularly deft at managing the driving of the music. Go back and read that again – that's exactly what I meant. He is intimately in touch with every single beat. His body language says some beats are subordinate to others, so when he needs to tick the thing along, he's fairly relaxed about the whole thing, sometimes not even giving the beat at all; but when it's really important – an entrance, a cue, or defining the dynamic – he's like a beady iguana eyeing its prey. And he's excellent with the sub-cue, the much smaller division of the beat none of us would ever be concerned about. If he doesn't get what he wants – or if the entrance isn't made – he looks in that direction to make sure that section of the band is still there, and they know that he knows! But it's hard to miss exactly what he wants if you are paying attention. Unconventional stick technique, a highly personalized act, and acute situational awareness make him an easy read. In short, he's a real-time conductor, intimately in touch with the objective, and this requires every musician to pay attention to what he wants. It doesn't often go wrong, and when it does, the effect is very subtle. With an all-student band, the opportunity to slip is vivid; but for a moment just imagine managing a hoard of teenagers, or chickens, or.... Never mind. I'm going to hear his Rossini next: The Barber of Seville. Wimbledon can wait.
*Editor's Note: Mr. Cope is certifiably delusional, but aren't many – if not all – critics? – JWL