Orchestral Music Review



Brevard Philharmonic: Season Concludes with Vigor

May 18, 2008 - Brevard, NC:


With a program titled "Czech Connections," Donald Portnoy brought his first season as Artistic Director and Conductor of the Brevard Philharmonic to a rousing conclusion. Commencement activities on the campus of Brevard College meant for a busy weekend schedule, especially in the Porter Center concert hall. But this concert represents an artistic triumph for the BOA organization (parent of the Brevard Phil.) that I believe represents a fitting tribute to the rights of passage.

CVNC was present to record Portnoy's first day at work in September 2007; a program that included a Glinka overture, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol," and Ravel's "Bolero." Ted McIrvine wrote, "Portnoy's work is cut out for him. Musicians report that he is an excellent conductor to work with in rehearsal, and we anticipate continued improvement. As time goes on, we can expect fewer anxious moments at performances. This is a promising start for what can only be a period of rapid improvement for the Brevard Philharmonic." I heard that program at the outdoor amphitheater of Brevard Music Center and also could hear the effects of new leadership and the promise it held for inspired concerts in the future.

Now, eight months and four concerts later, is it too much to expect a dramatic shift of standard? You should know this is one of the true "ya'll come" grassroots organizations. The players are, for the most part, amateurs who have day jobs or are retired from day jobs, but most have played music all their life. As is often the case with such ensembles, intensive sectional rehearsals are rare, and the effects of comparatively fewer rehearsal times than, say, a professional organization, often produces a certain elasticity of meter (among sections or between the band and conductor), intonation wanders in and out of phase, and there are "anxious moments" for both the players and the listeners.

The working canvass this time included Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture, Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88, and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35. And just to keep things interesting, the musician booked for the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto suddenly took ill, requiring a week of last-minute phone calls and pointing to find a replacement. And, just like professional organizations, they found a gem to step in: Sylvia Kim, a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, where she is concertmaster of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, arrived, and the show went on. More about her in a minute.

BOA Vice President Joan Yarbrough announced a change of the published program order from the stage. Initially ending with the Dvorák, the order was changed to make the Tchaikovsky the only work of the second half. So we began with Beethoven and then heard the Dvorák symphony before intermission. It was an interesting beginning and mix, and it was in the middle of the second movement of Symphony No. 8 that I began to sense there was in fact something dramatically different about this ensemble since last September.

The Beethoven started off briskly and in tune and was otherwise unremarkable except that it held together quite well. The Dvorák started off with that sunny motif in the low strings, brass and reeds, then cruised along well enough to distract attention from what was missing. Then, in the Largo, it seemed all the musicians were fully warmed up and found their own "center." Suddenly the ensemble was playing as one versus several sections playing at the same time, and this is new. This is approaching art on a very high level, and this is similar to how this band sounded ten years ago. The thing that was missing was a former instability that produced anxious moments.

After intermission, Sylvia Kim arrived with a calm and professional demeanor and just tore the place up. This concerto does not compare well with the famous Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor because this one appears to have more "serious" motifs and places greater demands on the player. While both the soloist and the orchestra were very well prepared, there were moments when the two seemed to drift apart, at least in spirit, each to play the thing they knew best, and then they would later join back together to finish a phrase. Portnoy, a violinist, read all the factors in real-time, making adjustments as the piece unfolded. Kim's scales, multi-stops, and intonation were impeccable, her playing was very fluid and mature, and she displayed a big sound that was rewarded by a standing, cheering audience at the end.

After several calls, she played an encore, the first movement from the first Partita in G minor for unaccompanied violin by J.S. Bach. She infused this difficult (and often difficult to hear) music with a clear pulse, forward pressure on the melodic line, and terrific phrasing that ensured everyone knew where ideas closed and new ideas began. Again, the audience cheered, as much for this young woman's artistry as reward for the admirable distance this community ensemble has traveled in the past year.

The distance come is hard to measure, but by any standard this orchestra has graduated to a new and rewarding level.