The Brevard Philharmonic opened its fourth season in Brevard College’s Porter Center featuring one of the most musical and inspiring artists on today’s concert circuit. Sponsored by the Pickelsimer family, the concert featured staples of the early romantic repertoire by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, capping the program after intermission with Max Bruch’s late romantic jewel, the Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46. Donald Portnoy is beginning his fourth season as Artistic Director and Conductor with the orchestra; Kristine McCreery, Associate Concertmaster, substituted in this performance for Concertmaster Ralph Congdon.
Featured artist Rachel Barton Pine has captivated the music world with her personal life story and a voracious appetite for music making, whether it be as classical music concert artist, rock violinist, Celtic style fiddler, or player of early string instruments. She has soloed with many of the world’s major orchestras and worked with some of the greatest conductors, composers, and performers of our time. She plays on the Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu violin known as the “ex Soldat” when she’s not performing Baroque works on another instrument appropriate for that music or rock music on an electric violin. A prodigy who’s been playing from the age of three, she exhibits an innate musicality, technical wizardry, and interpretive finesse well beyond her years. Moreover, she knows how to connect with an audience, not through overblown gestures or overplaying, but through her uncanny musical intelligence.
The program opened with Beethoven’s Overture to Fidelio, Op. 72, the last of four overtures he wrote for his only opera and the only one to bear its name. Though plenty dramatic, it is shorter, a good deal less complicated musically than the other three (called “Leonore Overtures”), and, perhaps most importantly, did not upstage the opera to follow. This also worked well as a concert opener; the orchestra sounded focused, energized, and cohesive throughout. The brass had problems at first blending with other sections, but this worked itself out over the course of the afternoon.
The Beethoven was a perfect foil for the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5, Op. 107 (“Reformation”), played just before intermission. Though composed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession and the establishment of Lutheran Protestantism, the work wasn’t completed until 1832, two years after the anniversary, and it wasn’t published until well after the composer’s death. This dignified symphony which is so redolent of grand ceremonial music inspired some of the afternoon’s finest playing. The chorale music in the first movement, played by the brass against string obbligatos, was as stirring as the hushed sounds of the “Dresden Amen” in the strings were moving. There was generally a good sense of melodic line, cadential drive, and dynamic nuance. The second movement, Allegro vivace, came across as a little too slow and studied; if it had been more light-hearted and scherzo-like, it wouldn’t have stolen as it did some of the lyric “thunder” from the following slow movement (Andante). The finale, following without a break from the previous movement, is a glorious summation in which Mendelssohn recalls the “Dresden Amen” and introduces Luther’s chorale “Ein feste Burg” in some of the grandest music he ever wrote. To amp things up, there are fugal passages and places where the music builds to stunning climaxes, and the orchestra rose magnificently in those moments. Why, then, end the piece, as Portnoy did, in a rather dismissive, almost deflated manner, instead of conducting and summoning from the orchestra all the intensity they could muster right though the very last beat?
The music after intermission consisted solely of the Bruch Scottish Fantasy. Ms. Pine took the stage dressed to suit the occasion in a gorgeous full-length tartan skirt. A real crowd pleaser, the Fantasy is based on a number of Scottish fiddle tunes and was written in a conservative, retrospective style. Her online program notes on the piece emphasize the importance of the harp part (in fact, the original title of the work was Fantasie für Violine mit Orchester und Harfe), and many orchestras perform the work with the harpist front and center below the conductor. I was disappointed, therefore, to see the harpist (Lelia Lattimore) buried in the violin section, and feared I wouldn’t hear her playing; alas, her part didn’t project.
The Fantasy’s plaintive Introduction, a tone poem of sorts featuring the tune "Through the Wood Laddie" and conjuring up images of old and ruined castles, was a showcase of lyrical depth and great beauty. The second movement, a lively dance based on the tune "The Dusty Miller," was followed by a gorgeous Andante sostenuto. Here the technical demands are those of sustained lyricism, and like the well rendered “song without words” it was, every note was put in its proper place. The finale, Allegro guerriero (fast and war-like), beginning with a dramatic series of down bows, has the most fiery passagework which Pine played effortlessly and without affectation.
Her encore consisted of two Scottish tunes from the 1740s, “The Lament of Flora MacDonald” and an old bagpipe tune with principal cellist Franklin Keel supplying the drones.