On a sunny day in the mountains with trees nearly bare of fall color, regional talent Ginger Kowal stepped center stage at the Porter Center and delivered a riveting concerto performance that will not soon be forgotten. Appearing with the Brevard Philharmonic, she brightened both the stage and everyone's mood with a handsome smile and steely focus. At the age of 21, this formidable violinist, musician, and defender of ecology displayed poise, artistry, and the kind of self-assured élan generally reserved for more mature artists.
Her choice of program was the Violin Concerto in E, Op. 64, of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47), a long-valued staple of the repertoire and favorite of audiences. Written in 1844, it was first performed by the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra March 13, 1845, with Ferdinand David as soloist. Due to tremendous popularity, a subjective and passionate attitude for Mendelssohn's music produced a stylistic shift for quite some time after his death. The effect was to draw interpretations of his works more into the later era of Wagner. While clearly "classical," Op. 64 is crafted in a way that looks back to an earlier time – to Bach, Handel, and Mozart – instead of forward. It was not until after WWII and commemorative celebrations in 1947, '59, and '72 that perspective began to change and a greater value was placed on classical interpretations.
Performing on her grandfather's Heberlein violin, Kowal went right to work along this line in the opening bars. Her steady pulse revealed abundant technique and classic restraint while commanding melodic direction and shape. She stayed away from the tendency to romanticize – an easy trap – and instead kept a steady course, with brilliant scales, rich sonority, and commanding stage presence. The first movement cadenza was delivered with an unhurried air of expectation. By producing breaks of silence between large phrases, the audience, too, was held in a state of silence. Her command of this vision and technique was convincing. The three-movement work was performed attacca, without pauses, and her ensemble with conductor Emerson Head was obviously well conceived. With more flying scales and solid, in-tune multi-stops, the third movement ended with members of the audience on their feet and cheering.
Kowal returned after intermission to perform the famous "Meditation" from Thaïs by Jules Massenet. Again, her natural musicianship, facile technique, and unhurried sense of melodic direction were displayed in an attractive way, although she seemed to lose focus at one point, late in the work, when some lower voices went slightly out of tune. This was noticeable only because the rest of her playing was so surgically clean and spotless. She recovered immediately and again received cheers from the audience. Then, with what appeared to be a spontaneous hitchhiker thumb motion, she left, not to exit the stage but to join the orchestra, taking a vacant seat in the first violin section. The kid has chops, cuts a handsome image on stage, and wants to save the earth. How can you miss?
This program began with Beethoven's Overture to Egmont, Op. 84. Immediately it seemed clear this young orchestra is coming to understand the amazing Porter Center acoustics. Conductor Emerson Head is now leaving more time between the end of a phrase and the beginning of the next thing. This allows the hall's natural reverb to decay and not interfere with what comes next. The reading was excellent, and Bobby Fish was again keeping all the dots connected on the timpani; his intense concentration and precision reminds one of an iguana....
The program's ending work was the Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120, by Robert Schumann (1810-56). This is a switch-a-roo piece that is one of the more innovative works of the era. It was started in 1841 as the second symphony and then revised in 1851, becoming No. 4. The first performance was December 30, 1852, with revisions carrying through to the final version, completed in 1853. Schumann altered the first movement sonata-allegro form, replacing the recapitulation with new themes that keep the audience refreshed. Placed at the end of this program, however, the effect was slightly less than it might have been since the orchestra appeared to have begun to tire. It is a long work, and when contrasted with the exciting concerto from the first half, the orchestra seemed labored at times.
Nonetheless, the overall improvements since the debut concert are gratifying. The hall remains a great equalizer, and even more rehearsal time in it would be an asset. I've heard it said that the truest mark of excellence is when an orchestra can play softly. That would be a huge challenge in such a "live" room, but there's certainly no better place to hone that skill!
The season will end on May 7 and there are three more concerts to enjoy the true community orchestra. Oh, from now on, all the soloists will be women.