The Brevard Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Donald Portnoy ended their season at the Porter Center on a high note with a program honoring Liszt’s 200th birthday and featuring Romanian soloist Judit Gábos in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A. Other works on the program were Otto Nicolai’s Overture to Merry Wives of Windsor and Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88. The orchestra was not only sufficiently staffed for this performance to produce the kind of lush romantic sounds one associates with this repertory, but they evidenced a maturation in ensemble playing which was a joy to hear.
Judit Gábos, a native of Cluj, Romania, has lived in Hungary since 1991 and is currently head of the music department at Esterházy College of Eger. She received her DMA in piano performance in 2003 from the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. Since 2000 she has performed as an artist of the Hungarian Radio, playing live solo and chamber music recitals. She has appeared in Turkey, Serbia, Spain, Finland, and has been in the United States as a guest professor and performer at the University of Minnesota (Duluth) and Valdosta State University in Georgia.
The Nicolai overture (1849) to his “comical and fantastical opera” was an appropriately bustling and cheerful curtain riser. The easy tunefulness and folksy character of this piece were the same traits found in the Dvorák symphony at the program’s end. While this music must be very familiar to the orchestra, they performed it with an appealing and energetic freshness. It’s practically the only work by the composer that is performed today.
Following this was the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2. Liszt began working on the piece in 1839 and did not complete it until 1849. Still later, the premiere occurred on January 7, 1857 in Weimar, with Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf as soloist with Liszt conducting. At first Liszt titled the work a “Concerto symphonique,” a reference perhaps to the heavy symphonic nature of this multi-sectional piece which straddles two genres. And, the work doesn’t open with a bravura flourish from the pianist, but rather gently rippling accompanying figures, a role the pianist adopts repeatedly. The virtuosic fireworks are certainly there later, though, in the form of parallel scales, massive and heavy octave figures, romping ascending chords ending in the high treble (and calculatedly close to the audience), and marvelously lengthy filigrees of chromatically inflected melodies. The physical and musical demands are relentless. Ms. Gábos is not a large person, but she maintains a large musical presence on stage without resorting to theatrics. Her technique and musicality are impeccable, with exquisite control and command of the music at hand. Maestro Portnoy did a fine job of keeping everyone together. Cellist Franklin Keel deserves special recognition for his beautiful solo passages with the piano. Ms. Gábos performed as an encore Liszt’s Fantasy on Verdi’s Rigoletto and received a much deserved standing ovation. A few out-of-tune notes on the piano were the only unwelcome intruders.
With the air having been scoured with the two experimental and super-charged Liszt works, the Dvorák symphony emerged after intermission as an emblem of musical clarity and accessibility. Dvorák composed the work at warp speed in 1889 (“melodies simply pour out of me”), inspired by his ongoing commitment to further the cause of Czech nationalism in music. Traces of folk elements are found throughout the symphony, in its melodies, use of solo instruments, the third movement Czech waltz, and schemes of repetition. The orchestra gave a spirited performance of this beloved work, especially the final variation movement, with some fine solos in the winds. I only wish Maestro Portnoy had given more space between the movements to allow the dust to settle, the spell to remain a while longer, so that thoughts could be gathered in anticipation of the next movement. Timing even here seems to really matter.