Orchestral Music Review



BMC Season Finale: Liszt's Faust Symphony

August 6, 2006 - Brevard, NC:


During the closing measures it became clear why I do not care for these season finale programs at Brevard Music Center. The timpani rolls by Timothy Adams were sustained and solid. Conductor David Effron called for the orchestra to punctuate the short ending chords. Adams sustained the rolls with a crescendo, then another chord. Finally, the end, and just like that the season was done.

No más. Nada. Fine.

That's what I don't like.

This seven-week institute and festival along the southeastern Blue Ridge escarpment is easy to take for granted. Now concluding its 70th year, its sheer density of events and activity can dull the senses. Between the upper and lower divisions there are 400 student musicians, there are over 60 professional musicians as faculty, and this combination produces over 70 musical events including opera, orchestra, chamber music, student recitals, and competitions. In addition to professional management and core staff there are 34 ducks and geese, 300 music stands, and 223 shower curtains. Beginning in mid-June, the intensity builds on a daily basis, and once into a rhythm, the standard of performance must be well within reach of the best music festivals worldwide. Okay, they don't have a Bratwurst day, ergo negative points. But they do raffle off a BMW, so... You know, when you spend a lot of time at this place, as I have done, you begin to realize there is so much going on it all seems normal — until it stops.

In 2005, David Effron closed out the season conducting Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6. If you follow the BMC seasons, you realize all the other major works and programs lead to one final and grand concert. Last year I wrote, "Before all the chickens leave for home, it's time for little mano á mano with one of the titans of... symphonic genre." And the same can be said for 2006's selection, Franz Liszt's Eine Faust Symphonie, S.108 (after Goethe).

This symphony is what all the smart people regard as Liszt's masterwork. It is in three movements — Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles — running well into 80 minutes. It is a product of the mid-19th-century intellect where heroic-size works were taking root and pointing toward a transitional romanticism in the 20th century. This work dates from Liszt's thirteen-year Weimar period when he was musician of the court. There he conducted orchestra and opera productions and composed. The creative genesis for this work is with Berlioz and dates much earlier than the widely-ascribed 1854. Following the first performance in 1857, the work had several amendments, adjustments, and rewrites until it ended up with two common performance modes, one ending with a tenor and chorus and one without. We heard the version without.

The contrast between the huge and massive musical monuments by Liszt and Mahler and the toothy lesser musical bon-bons found on some of this season's programs could not be more stark or obvious. I'm not saying everything else was light fare. Rather, smart programming suggests you don't put your patrons through weekly 80-minute brain-fests. Therein we find not only relief but also valuable perspective about the range of human expression and the technical expertise of the great composers. The Ford Taurus and the Lincoln are different in style, but when you strap on a high-end Bentley or Ferrari, you have moved into a different physical space and attitude.

By the seventh week of this festival, students and faculty are ready to tackle works like this. The orchestra was 96 members on this day. David Effron conducted without a score but did use a stick. Together they brought this massive musical work to life with focus, dynamic interpretation, excellent intonation, and endurance. When it was over, an exhausted Effron asked the various sections to stand, and then the entire orchestra received a final ovation. And then it really was done.

The Janiec Opera Company announced the works for 2007: Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, and Lerner & Lowe's Camelot. Next year is Effron's last. In addition to calling on some old friends to come and perform, he has asked the audience for programming suggestions.

Faust and his problems with self-awareness, lust, and the devil have been visited by the BMC folks several times this summer — in the forms of music from Berlioz's Damnation of Faust and the Liszt symphony under discussion here (which Liszt dedicated to Berlioz). For me, however, the August 6 performance hit even closer to home, for this final concert of the 2006 season also marked the end — or, if you will, the damnation — of summer!

The silence is deafening.