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David Effron, the Artistic Director Laureate of the Brevard Music Center Summer Institute and Festival from 1997 to 2007, returned to the podium to conduct the Brevard Music Center Orchestra in their final concert of the season. The concert was broadcast live on WDAV radio as "OpenAir Brevard." First on the program was Brahms's Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90 (1883). The guest soloist after intermission was the renowned violinist Gil Shaham, who performed the Brahms Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 (1878) on the 1699 "Countess Polignac" Stradivarius. The concert was sponsored by the Audrey-Love Charitable Foundation.
Both works were composed, of course, long after Beethoven's works in each genre had cast their long and intimidating shadows, and not without struggle. As Brahms was not a violinist, he consulted none other than the violinist Joseph Joachim on the writing of the concerto; Joachim alternately advised, then complained about the music's playability. And Brahms was equally critical of his Third Symphony, writing a friend, "Wrap it daily in a cloth moistened with the best Rhine wine — and do whatever else one does for such dry products." Nevertheless, through them, we hear not only Brahms's mastery of both concerto and symphonic form, but his unique synthesis of tradition and innovation.
His Third Symphony was, in essence his most personal utterance, as it contains Brahms's personal motto "frei aber froh," (free but happy), which shows up rather ironically as the motive F A-flat F, a motive tinged with minor, in all four movements. Of Brahms’s four symphonies, it’s the only one that’s cyclical in this way. Effron's interpretation of the work was decidedly "maestoso" with very broad tempi in every movement, as if to savor each and every musical detail. Melodic expansiveness trumped again and again the symphony's playfully intricate cross-rhythms, and somewhat undermined its signature bursts of energy, especially in the first movement "Allegro con brio." The more lightly orchestrated second movement "Andante" featured some of the most ravishing orchestral colors, beautifully blended, and delicate solos (kudos to clarinet and horn). The third movement "Poco allegretto" was a gem of lyrical and expansive melody in a sunny major key of C. The final rondo movement again was played so deliberately that its forward trajectory seemed deflated, its developmental processes became a little tedious (academic?), and its greater potential for transport was left somewhat wanting.
In contrast, the rendition of the Violin Concerto was exemplary in every way. Mr. Shaham exudes an infectious joy through his impeccable playing that is simply riveting, and Effron's conducting of the work showed his signature attention to detail, coupled this time with a focused energy. The opening "Allegro non troppo" showed the range of Shaham's playing, from the most bravura figurations to the most intimate and delicate of chamber sounds. He plays in a crouched stance with flexed knees, and frequently pivoted toward the conductor, and then the audience. Such turning sometimes resulted in the drowning out of his softest sounds by the orchestra, a balance problem that seemed to resolve itself in movements two and three. The Joachim cadenza toward the end of movement one was its emotional highpoint, rich in nuance and beautifully paced. The second movement "Adagio," famous for its opening oboe solo (kudos to oboe, horn, and the other winds), retained its essential chamber music/song character throughout the lovely exchanges between the violin and orchestra. The final movement à la Hongroise is where Brahms put aside his wig and wrote enough frenetic passagework for the violinist to make him sweat. Shaham's response was a barely restrained dance-like sway in which he nailed the piece with finesse in lieu of overplaying it — a sophisticated response to great music by one of the greatest players of our day.