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In the Porter Center at Brevard College, the organization still known as the Brevard Chamber Orchestra Association launched the latest version of its performance group, now called the Brevard Philharmonic. Although the BCOA has kept educational programs in the community, the Brevard Chamber Orchestra has not existed for the past two years. But on October 2, the charismatic Emerson Head, Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland (College Park) and member of the summer faculty at Brevard Music Center for many years, conducted 56 musicians in a glittering resurrection designed to please the ear and lay down a baseline for the road ahead. As a start-up of any kind, they produced an admirable afternoon, and as a "community orchestra" they were outright phenomenal!
They are deep in excellent local talent, and a few not-so-local musicians have been invited to join the party. The string section is anchored by violinists Paul Statsky and Ralph Congdon, violist Salvatore Venitelli, and cellist Jacqueline Taylor. You would follow this quartet through hot coals if necessary. The nine-member woodwind section boasts some familiar names – Sandra Eastman and Connie Weis on flutes, Faith Wheeler on piccolo, Pamela Sacco and Gail Cable on the black double reeds, Leslie Zarnowsky on bassoon with Ernest Hawkins serving as Principal, and Brevard College Professor Susan Nicholson on clarinet. There is a full complement of brass numbering eleven, and Bobby Fish leads the percussion section.
Twenty minutes past the published start time, the program opened with the "Academic Festival" Overture by Johannes Brahms. All that time sitting through speeches and ceremonies contributed to a rough beginning, especially in the horns, but soon everybody was warmed up and on the same page. The orchestra is a perfect size for this hall (hint to ASO Conductor Daniel Meyer...). The first piece was relevant, given the campus location, the number of professors and students playing, and the relationship they intend to forge with the College. Though sometimes labored, the Overture was a good start.
Next came the Trumpet Concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, with Head as soloist in the three movements (Allegro con spirito, Andante, and Rondo: allegro). Guest conductor Carol Weinhofer – a horn player who graduated from Peabody and did post graduate study at Ohio State and U. Maryland and who has established a string instruction program for the Brevard schools – produced a clear and decisive stick with much energy, a sharply defined pattern and insistent meter. Head was revealed as a tremendous trumpet player and musician with great sense of dynamic control, and he obtained excellent passagework and articulation. Due to all the other things going on in his life, I was surprised that Head accepted this solo role, and I expected that this may not have been an opportunity for his best playing, but he delivered a memorable performance. He was totally into the music, weaving with the rhythm and singing during tacet sections. The Hummel is a good piece, straight forward fast-slow-attacca fast, and Weinhofer brought the orchestra back in perfectly after the horn cadenza in the finale. Prior to intermission, we heard "Finlandia," Op. 26, No. 7, by Jean Sibelius. This was very well played but gave us the first hint of balance problems between the strings and the big brass section and booming timpani. The sectional inequity tended to mask an otherwise fine reading.
The second half opened at 4:50 p.m. with the Prelude to Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner. There were problems of balance in the brass – too loud for this particular place – and the woodwinds were out of phase once. Generally, the orchestra simply needs more rehearsal time in this hall. Again, this was a fine reading, albeit marred by balance issues.
Next came the Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun" by Claude Debussy. This featured fine introductory flute playing by Sandra Eastman. I was surprised that Head conducted the opening solo flute. That opening section seems a great opportunity for some slight-of-ear, to let the sounds emanate from within and then pick up the beat later. There was also great harp playing from Sallie Connah.
The Carmen Suite No. 1 of Georges Bizet ended the program. This was another excellent reading – a nearly perfect ending piece – and balance was restored among the sections. Particularly strong were the clarinet of Nicholson and double reed of Sacco – measured, on time, in tune, and great tone. Bobby Fish was always at the ready and actually driving (defining) the beat at times. I could hear a little intonation drift between strings and woodwinds but not enough to disappoint.
They will need more "hard time" in the amazing Scott Concert Hall in order to balance the various sections. The brass was great but at times they nearly blew us out the door while rendering inaudible the entire string section. The percussion section, anchored by Fish, the master of time, is well staffed, but they too produced alarming volume. Again, this hall is the great equalizer, the 500-lb. gorilla who will sit all over your act if you don't pay attention. The band has been practicing over in the large ensemble rehearsal room in the Brevard College music building. Play a note in there and it drops off right into your lap. It's dead, dead, dead. So this experience, no doubt, contributed to the zealous fortitude realized in the hall. But that's a nice problem to work on. You always want to be in a position to turn it down or dial it back.
This program didn't begin right at the published 3:30 p.m. start time due to announcements, appreciations, and awards. Former HSO and BCO conductor Virginia Tillotson was awarded a Golden Baton and named conductor emeritus by the BCOA. The much-loved Tillotson relished the moment among old friends and delivered very funny remarks that kept all the hearts in check.
Emerson Head, in and out of the Brevard area since 1948, is a smart guy who will be quick to solve a list of suggested improvements, and I expect tremendous playing in the future. Actually, they're playing fine now. They need only some time to gel and figure out the hall. The Brevard Philharmonic plays again on November 13.
Not to worry. Emmo will get it fixed.