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Each year, the Season Finale at the Brevard Music Center is noteworthy either for blockbuster repertoire or for a famed soloist. This year’s finale featured both. The program was Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, with the Glinka Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla thrown in for good measure. The soloist was pianist Olga Kern. This was an all-Russian event in both programming and soloist. Only the orchestra and conductor André Raphel Smith were American.
I am in love with Olga Kern. I could probably devote an entire column to the clothes she wore on this hot afternoon: a strapless floor-length satin gown with a large decorative bow at the waist and a transversely fluted skirt of a scarlet color that shaded into near-purple at the floor. But I will limit my comments to her musical performance. The formidable technique that brought her a win in the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition and a Gold Medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition is best when applied to the romantic Russian repertoire. One reviewer, commenting on her recording of solo piano works, remarked that it appeared as though Rachmaninoff had written his music with Ms. Kern in mind.
Certainly on this occasion, Ms. Kern performed the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with a commendably large measure of musical insight. She is well beyond a simple mastery of the power, the notes, the runs, the trills and the pedaling that this monstrous work requires. Without ever fighting the huge orchestral resources that are competing for the ears of the audience, she brought a sensibility that illuminated the work’s aesthetics. She decisively finished off the extended section that introduces the first theme of the Allegro as though to say “There, that is put on a shelf until I need it later.” She then figuratively turned the page to Chapter Two. There were agogic accents that reminded one of drawled speech. There were temporary contemplative resting places. There was a passage in the Finale movement where flutist Renée Krimsier and Kern sounded like chamber musicians in a private parlor. There were articulations which caused clear light to shine through the dense orchestral accompaniment. There were riptide passages that carried one into the deep sea of Slavic foreboding. Each of these grand gestures struck me as correct, even inevitable, and definitely true to the composer.
Given the liberties that Ms. Kern takes with tempo, the BMC Orchestra under Maestro André Raphel Smith did a heroic job of accompaniment. Earlier, they had tossed off the overture. After intermission, they tackled the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. Each of us must make up his own mind as to whether Dmitri Shostakovich was attempting to satisfy the Soviet cultural commissars in the late 1930’s, or whether he was thumbing his nose at them. I think the latter. The rousing chorus of brass and percussion part way through the first movement is a sardonic presentation of a jolly little passage that the officials think sounds like music for a workers’ paradise but is in fact a burlesque. When repeated in the fourth movement, this riff is immediately followed by a melancholy horn passage. Out of a backdrop of minor key despair in the final pages of the symphony, there finally arises a resolution, an affirmation that human decency will triumph.
The previously mentioned passage by brass and percussion was only one of many passages in which sections of the orchestra were outstanding. The cellos, led by Brinton Averil Smith, were eloquent. Solos by concertmaster Patrick Rafferty, by bassoonist William Ludwig and by clarinetist Steve Cohen must be acknowledged. Maestro Smith was in clear command.
This concert played to a sold-out house in the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. Several hundred additional people purchased lawn passes. On the final weekend of the Brevard Music Festival when many families descend to pick up their student musicians, it was not only a large crowd but also a joyous one appreciative of the quality of this performance.