In the post-war era — that's post-WWII — the once remote and (quite frankly) backward hill country of North Carolina has taken quite an upward turn. Outside the metropolis of Charlotte, where there's always been high culture (just ask 'em and they'll tell you), there was Black Mountain College and then the Transylvania Music Camp and then the ever-increasing sophistication of what some folks now call folk arts, some of the best examples of which may be seen in the vicinity of Asheville, a true gem of a town in Western NC. Still, Tarheels from other regions of the state tend to think of the mountains in terms of summer attractions, when cultural events are offered from Highlands and Cashiers to Asheville and environs to Boone. Therefore it was, I must confess, a bit of a surprise for this Piedmont resident to discover in mid-October superb artistry and high art in Brevard, home of the Brevard Music Center and Festival and of the Mountain Chamber Players, to be sure, but not necessarily on many arts radar screens otherwise, particularly in the off-season. Based on what we heard at Brevard College on October 19, that perception is due for some dusting off and setting straight.
The program was a mid-week — Thursday evening — faculty chamber music recital, of which there are several during the academic year. On this occasion, the evening was centered on soprano Kathryn Gresham, with assistance from her other half, tenor David Gresham, and accompaniments by guitarist Roger Allen Cope (in the first half) and pianist Janice Murray (in the second). In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Cope is a professional colleague as a critic at CVNC — and our recently-appointed editor, too. My presence was for the purpose of checking out his musical chops, which heretofore I'd experienced only via recordings. (He's not been asked to edit this review!) I was not disappointed — and I must say that it was not just Cope whose work impressed!
Brevard College has a jewel of an auditorium in the Porter Center for the Arts; Scott Concert Hall is a venue that is as appealing to the ears as it is to the eyes. If this concert is any indication of the norm, presentations there are given first-class treatment. There were printed programs, carefully proofread, that contained all the requisite information about the music being performed. There were supplemental inserts labeled "texts and translations" that covered the ground for the works that weren't in English (although to tell the truth there were translations only but no texts). There was a schedule of upcoming events — lots of 'em in the following six weeks or so. (They should all be in CVNC's western calendar — and will be when the college sends us the info....)
The stage is copious and well appointed, and there's a magnificent looking set of organ pipes to delight the eyes.
But the most impressive thing about this program was the program itself — and the magnificence with which it was realized. For here was program-making of exceptional merit, with no condescension to the audience, no pandering whatsoever.
Things got underway with William Schuman's "Orpheus and his Lute," one of the finest examples of the work of our great and now rarely-heard American master. Cope provided glowing support for Gresham's pure soprano voice, and the sense of shared purpose made for a gripping experience.
Cope then played a new work by one of his students, Christoper Morgan (b.1976); "Tableaux" engaged the mind as it unfolded, concurrently displaying some fine examples of guitar technique that only a serious student of the instrument could know.
Two fine folk songs — Laurindo Almeida's "Black is the Color" and Benjamin Britten's "I Gave my Love an Apple" featured Cope with tenor David Gresham, whose light voice suggested Peter Pears' in altogether flattering ways.
Turina's Homenaje a Tárrega brought out the best in Cope's technical and interpretive art — here is a guitarist whose music-making comes from the deepest recesses of his soul. The large crowd responded with exceptional warmth and fervor, sensing the special nature of the performance.
Kathryn Gresham returned for three Brazilian art songs, arranged by Almeida. It wasn't the first time during this program that the great guitarist's versions of songs were given. His name is no longer well-known, but he was one of the masters during a period when there were many top-quality artists. Older music lovers may also recognize him as a long-time supporting colleague of the great soprano Salli Terri.
This exceptional part of the program came to a stirring close with a performance of Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" as arranged by Napoléon Coste. This isn't quite as dramatic as Berlioz's treatment of "The Erlking" but it comes close, and it's an arrangement that is also extraordinarily effective. The two artists gave it their all, the guitar often speaking on co-equal terms with the singer. At the end, there was thunderous applause from the large and grateful audience. Only later did I discover that the crowd was perhaps equally divided among fans of the vocal art and guitarists and guitar enthusiasts.
For reasons not yet clear to this writer, Western NC is a veritable hotbed of activity for classical guitarists. For example, there seemed to be enough practitioners in attendance to have staged a full guitar orchestra, and the following week two world-class masters of the art — John Williams and John Etheridge — were slated to appear on this very stage. It's all pretty impressive, I must say. And the fact that Cope moonlights as a critic makes it all that much more appealing. But of course it wasn't just Cope's show: the Greshams were impressive too, as singers and interpreters. I was truly sorry to have had to miss the second half, which was given over to duets and solo numbers by Donaudy, Ravel, Strauss, Quilter, and Gershwin, with accompaniment by pianist Janice Murray.