Any newcomer arriving at the 750-seat Porter Center at Brevard College must regard it with a certain sense of dread, awe, exhilaration, and glorious fulfillment. This formula works on both sides of the stage, for audience and performers. Word has gotten around by now – this place has tremendous acoustics but requires deft adjustment to tempi and dynamics, care must be used when adjusting the side and rear curtains, and any recording here is the aural equivalent of the Hubble Telescope.
The Díaz Trio, guest artists for the Brevard Music Center chamber music series on July 13, brought an interesting Beethoven duo, a monstrous work for cello and "All the Percussion" by Tan Dun, and Brahms.
I hate Brahms.
The Trio consists of Elmar Oliveira violin, Roberto Díaz viola, and Andrés Díaz cello. In residence for at least the previous two weeks, Andrés Díaz had already performed the Triple Concerto on the all-Beethoven concert. This time he had the lion's share of the work, and he was on stage all night.
The opening "Eyeglass Duo" in E-flat, WoO.32, for viola and cello, was a fairly adventurous effort using each instrument's technical and spiritual strengths in interesting ways. A five-note noodler subject toward the end brought unexpected excitement. The piece concludes with a thunderous authentic V-I cadence.
Tan Dun's piece featured the cello of Andrés Díaz and the membranophone four: Timothy Adams, Conrad Alexander, Lee Hinkle, and Thomas Schmidt. Right away you could tell that these guys aren't well because there were so many of them and they were all barefoot! And if the piece really requires such a large group of percussion instruments, then this guy Tan must be really sick, too. The huge array of percussion instruments included vibes, marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone, tubular bells, timpani, and about 21 assorted noisemakers, including strips of paper for tearing.
Dun's Elegy: Snow in June was written in 1991 and uses a 13th-century Chinese drama by Kuan Han-Ching for inspiration. In the story, a young woman is executed for crimes she did not commit, leaving plenty of room for interpretive pathos. The work opens with wailing glissandi in the cello, a lonely aching kind of distant sound comparable to whale songs. Soon light-rimmed cymbals are heard and then the tearing paper. In the absence of a click track, the focus and concentration by the percussionists was excellent; everybody was counting everything. But early in this work, I wondered if it was going to be just another Ph.D. thesis piece with lots of tricky, clever "things."
As it unfolded, we began to hear Dun's insight to layered sound and difference tones. Interesting sounds in this superior hall were produced from overtones and harmonics augmented by many surfaces. In the middle is an elegant and plaintive monologue by the cello, accompanied by memorable bursts of tribal dialogue among the percussion (There is a note in my book here: "Satisfying is lashing out and hitting something on purpose, making a huge sound in the process" – which must represent the motivation of every percussionist!)
Due to the work's complexity this performance was an example of shared leadership like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which has advocated a system of self-governing performance since its inception in 1972. There is no conductor. Without a central authority figure, greater responsibility falls to each player, and each shares a leadership role and creates a personal artistic commitment to the whole. The Dun piece is very noisy in places but at other times we only hear the tearing of paper, so all the players must be one with each other – and if not, then they must at least agree who is in charge at each moment. When Elegy was finished, there was an extended silence, followed by enthusiastic applause and curtain calls.
Nearby Asheville, NC, NPR affiliate station WCQS recently aired a 1963 recording of James Christian Pfohl, conductor and founder of the BMC, with violinist Aaron Rosand and the BMC Orchestra performing Sibelius' Violin Concerto. Setting aside the historic recording, these radio broadcasts are the work of Bruce Murray, Dean of Students and the BMC's unofficial audio archivist. I mention this because if you happen to hear the Tan Dun piece on the radio, STOP whatever you are doing for fourteen minutes and become absorbed into this labyrinth of sound-scape. It was a very good ride.
But I hate Brahms.
Speaking of Bruce Murray, after intermission came the Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60, of Johannes Brahms, with all the strings present (finally) and Murray at the piano.
Brahms, ugh, okay, I can do this.... The piano opens the work with a perfectly-crafted phrase, expertly performed by Murray. Next came more perfectly-crafted phrases, nicely-balanced part writing, harmonious blending of instrumentation, clever modulations, and professional ensemble. Throughout the four movements, Murray tended to lead the beat ever so slightly. When we got to the recapitulation, it was clear that all these guys would rather be doing this than..., than... – ah, EATING!
The Scherzo second movement involves lots of eye contact for cued entrances. Violinist Oliveira tore up his bow – an example of how passionate was his playing, perhaps aggravated by the Russian-heritage bow grip. (Thanks to Thomas Joiner, Hendersonville SO Music Director, for pointing this out!) Loose strands of bow hair were flying about. During the Andante, Murray and Andrés Díaz alternated the roles – thoughtful and passionate. In the finale, a brisk allegro has a little four-note figure starting on the weak beat that sounds suspiciously similar to Beethoven's motif in the C minor Symphony. Overall, it was a tremendous performance of vigorous and skilled writing. When it was done, there were cheers, standing, and more curtain calls.
But I hate Brahms. Not enough flaws.
In each work in this hall, exuberant playing and inattention can result in potential penalties. The hall has a sound that will make a player famous, but the rule should be to knock one tick off the tempo and knock one letter off the dynamics. That will at least give a breathtaking operational envelope for expression. If you play in a hall this good and overdo your part, the performance will sound like you danced with a 500-lb. gorilla.