Brevard Philharmonic: Donald Portnoy's Debut as Conductor
by Ted McIrvine
September 30, 2007, Brevard, NC: The first concert of this year's Brevard Philharmonic season was presented outdoors on a Sunday afternoon at the 1800-seat Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium on the campus of the Brevard Music Center. The remainder of the season’s concerts will be indoors at the 700-seat Porter Center on the campus of Brevard College. How many counties with a population of 30,000 can boast of an acoustically fine small concert hall, a nationally known educational summer music festival with superb facilities, and its own community orchestra? Transylvania County can.
The Brevard Philharmonic is the successor organization to the Brevard Chamber Orchestra which began playing in 1976. The orchestra was expanded a few years ago, draws on musicians from neighboring Asheville and Hendersonville as well as local members, and has chosen Donald Portnoy to be Artistic Director and Conductor. Dr. Portnoy, more qualified and more experienced than any previous conductor of the ensemble, made his first appearance at this concert. Given the historic moment, this will inevitably be a review of the concert, a report on the new conductor, and a discussion of the ensemble's status and prospects.
Even before the concert opened, I could detect a problem. I am accustomed to musicians spending the last 15 minutes before a concert focusing their minds and eliminating extraneous distractions. But some of the Brevard players, right up to the concertmaster's appearance, moved about, chatted and even waved to acquaintances in the audience. Serious players should be in a state of mind where nothing exists but their instruments, their music and their fellow performers. A tight ensemble will only come if the individuals focus and strive for unity of purpose, and that focus must begin before the program does.
Glinka's Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla led off the concert. The orchestra strove to match the brisk pace that Portnoy was indicating, but there were warning signals when the first woodwind entry was ragged and the later violin pizzicatos were not quite in synchronism. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 (Little Russian) was the major work of the afternoon, and fared better. Tchaikovsky is notoriously tough for French horn players, and the horn section did reasonably well, with a special commendation to first hornist Hobart Whitman for his first movement solo. However, further signs that this is not yet a cohesive orchestra came when the violin section bowing was not uniform.
After intermission, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" was followed by Ravel's "Bolero." The Rimsky-Korsakov work allowed concertmaster Ralph Congdon to demonstrate his solo capability, while both pieces allowed the percussionists to show their mettle. The percussion session is dominated by Brevard College students who reflected well on Professor Laura Franklin who teaches percussion there.
Dr. Portnoy is Professor of Music at the University of South Carolina, and his podium style demonstrates the best characteristics of a "teaching" conductor. He provides a clear beat, and indicates many cues that a student orchestra or community orchestra needs while a major orchestra might not require. He uses an economy of motion. No histrionic gestures for the benefit of the audience; his stick work is purposeful. He is willing to engage the orchestra with good eye contact if they care to look at him. It was notable that most principal players were locked in and responsive to Portnoy, while many back desk players had their noses buried in their music stands. He chose a program well matched to the limitations of the orchestra, one that stretched the players somewhat but did not overwhelm them.
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.