The Brevard Camerata is a chamber orchestra composed of conservatory-age students at the Brevard Music Center. At the Porter Center on Wednesday evening, they offered two 20th-century works and a Haydn symphony, all conducted by Ken Lam.
English composer Michael Tippett premiered his Little Music in 1946. It contains four short movements for string orchestra that are performed without pause. To me, the first two movements (Prelude and Fugue) are rather cerebral music but the final two (Air and Finale) take on much more life. I sense that the composer was imagining dancing on the green in some quaint village. One senses nostalgia for an “Olde England” that was just a memory following World War II. The Camerata’s fourteen violinists and six violists performed the Tippett while standing, as did the two bass players; only the four cellists sat. One rather hoped that since so many were standing, they would in fact dance but no such luck.
There followed a lengthy change of setup on the stage, during which Maestro Lam gave an introduction to John Adams' 1996 clarinet concerto titled Gnarly Buttons. Lam confessed to not completely understanding what Adams was saying in his discussion of the piece on his website. While I don’t concur with Elliott Carter that minimalist repetition is dangerously akin to fascist speeches, I agree with the critics Donal Henahan, Harold Schonberg, and Christopher Lasch, all of whom consider strict minimalist works as a sort of social pathology. There are works by John Adams in which he transcends his passion for minimalist drones and treats the minimalist techniques as simply a few arrows in his quiver of compositional tools among many others, and I like some of these. But Gnarly Buttons is not one. The work left me cold, especially the computer-generated sound of a cow mooing in the second movement “Hoedown.”
Faculty member Steve Cohen was the clarinet soloist, and he showed great skill in navigating the many register changes and leaps that are demanded of the soloist. Members of the ensemble demonstrated skill in their performance of the three-movement work, which is scored for the clarinet soloist plus a string quintet, English horn, bassoon, trombone, banjo, piano, and two electronic “sampling” keyboards (linked to computer-stored sounds including the cow).
Following intermission, we moved back two centuries to Franz Joseph Haydn. The orchestra was seated this time for Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G. Winds and percussion joined with the strings. Maestro Lam had used a baton for the Adams piece, but returned to conducting with hands only for this work, as he had for the Tippett.
In Haydn’s aonata allegros, he frequently uses the first theme, slightly varied, as the second theme in the dominant key (D in this case). He does so in the first movement of this symphony, contributing to a sense of unity in the movement. The second movement Largo uses a six-note motif that the ensemble made us feel to be as inevitable as it was beautiful. In the third movement, the musicians gave us a lesson about how an 18th-century minuet should sound. They were aided by Lam’s dancing footsteps on the podium to supplement his arm motions. There was formal stately movement in this minuet but underlying the formality was a sense of vim, vinegar, and sex. In the final movement Allegro con spirito, conductor and orchestra showed full mastery in presenting us with sudden dynamic contrasts.
Haydn was called the “Father of the Symphony” not because he was the first to use the form (he wasn’t) but because he contributed so much to its development. Symphony No. 88 is the work of a master, and this clean performance by a group of students showed that they too are masters. Bravo.