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The famous Porter Center at Brevard College hosted another round of the Brevard Music Center Chamber Music Series presenting I Solisti de Brevard with Thomas Joiner conducting and playing violin. Also on the program were violinist David Salness, William Campbell and Mark Schubert on trumpets, and Bruce Murray at the piano.
The centerpiece is a string orchestra made up of 23 of the finest students of the Institute and Festival, none older than 18, who auditioned during the third week of camp. It was configured in the traditional baroque core group –12 violins, 4 violas, 4 celli, and 2 double basses – and right about here we would normally list the continuo, but for unexplained reasons the whole ambiance gets flushed away and we delve into serious rant territory.
They used an electronic keyboard.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. With all these smart people and this world-class festival, we had a program of Vivaldi, Corelli and Handel and they made us listen to an E-keyboard continuo part. Plus, a whole concerto by J. S. Bach played on piano! The horror!
I'm sorry, am I shouting?
Say it with me: "the horror."
For the record, Katherine Murray played the continuo part and performed well. However, use of an electronic keyboard to simulate a harpsichord on baroque chamber programs might be fine for the South West Moline Volunteer Fire & Rescue Ladies Auxiliary Annual Sub-Station Thrift Sale and Puppy Worming Clinic. But in this professional setting it represents an appalling oversight by an outstanding music festival, an outrageous affront to the sensibilities of an educated listening audience, and gross abuse of such a tremendous concert hall. I can understand the E-keyboard logic for operas over at the outdoor W-P Auditorium, but not in the Porter Center's Scott Concert Hall. No.
Open letter to BMC President John Candler: Dear Mr. Candler, Please call your BoD and explain you will immediately launch a fund-raising initiative to purchase a harpsichord. Cut a lease-back deal with Brevard College to keep it on their climate-controlled property; BC may use during the traditional academic year, BMC will use during summer session for chamber concerts held in the Porter Center, make a 50/50 maintenance expense deal, everybody wins and the money works out.
Do it now.
End of rant.
The strings started it off with the Concerto Grosso in A minor, Op. 3, No. 8, by Antonio Vivaldi, with David Salness and Thomas Joiner playing duo violins. These guys have big chops, were well-balanced and had obviously spent time to achieve a well-matched sound. The orchestra was superb throughout, and Joiner filled the dual conductor/player role with ease.
Next came the Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6/8, of Arcangelo Corelli. This is a straightforward six-movement string orchestra piece that works with tempo changes and rhythmic variance. It is not like a suite of pre-classic dance forms; instead, the composer seemed to have realized the need to press for change and variety. Joiner conducted with a clear beat and focused cues. He's very good at closing a piece. If you watch his baton, you can "hear" the tempo slowing broadening right down to the cadence, which in his pattern is located with the stick up; it is as though the sound not only slows down but also wafts away and up, into the rafters.
Before intermission, we heard Antonio Vivaldi's three-movement Concerto in C for two trumpets with William Campbell and Mark Schubert doing the work. You might recall Campbell's name from the season opening concert in June when he performed a similar concerto by Tartini. This time, the two piccolo trumpets had a dialog and interplay that showed off the players' virtuosity and the composer's imagination. There was still a lot of sawing, but the trumpet playing was great, and the performance earned a standing ovation – starting with the students first – at the end.
After intermission came the stark realization of just how "working class" Vivaldi and Corelli are as we heard the Concerto No. 7 in G minor, S.1058, of J. S. Bach, with Bruce Murray at the piano (don't get me started). A few minutes with Bach are all you need to understand he's the Big Dog who owns the room.
At times this fast/slow/fast format reminded me of the Brandenburg Concertos, but the piano quickly intruded on those thoughts. When you put anything by Bach up next to period peers there are no reflections: Bach rules. The middle movement is quite glorious, often ending a phrase on the leading tone, then falling over the bar line to quietly resolve the tension as though it's almost an afterthought. Murray made the most of that, and he is quite at home in this period – lately, he's been trotting around the Goldberg Variations. His playing was superb, as was the orchestra's - and Joiner's leadership.
This program ended with a clear harbinger of the emerging classical era, the Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op. 6/7, by Georg Frideric Handel. It's a nicely balanced five-movement work ending with his signature Hornpipe. Under Joiner's excellent direction, the orchestra delivered a formidable and memorable performance. Throughout, the strings displayed great discipline, a balanced homogenous sound, and playing that was responsive to the conductor. That's pretty strong work from kids.
Throughout the night I had this struggle to reach a plateau of objectivity and reason and actually listen to this program for what it could offer. I had to go a few rounds of "serenity now" and TM just to get composed. The whole E-keyboard thing was shockingly unexpected and rude. The next bolt of lightning hit me after hearing the Vivaldi and Corelli pieces. I think I now understand why the baroque period died out. They just couldn't stand it any more. All that sawing away on the strings, treading the sonority while a soloist doubles the line on top, became too much to endure – especially if you have to rehearse more than once. That old analogy of the sewing machine has some merit.
In the end, we had first-rate playing all around, wonderful stability, solid intonation, a progressive program, spirited performances, and professional leadership. You just can't ask for anything more.
... Well, there is that whole continuo thing....