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Orchestral Music Review Print

A Fine Afternoon's Repast: Llewellyn, Copland and Beethoven at Brevard Music Center

August 2, 2009 - Brevard, NC:

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, the Brevard Music Center Orchestra, under the direction of Grant Llewellyn, the Center's Festival Chorus (directed by Ken Lam) and soloists performed Aaron Copland's Inscape and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. Beethoven soloists were Barbara Shirvis, soprano, Liliana Piazza, mezzo-soprano, Richard Clement, tenor, and Stephen Powell, baritone. The event was sponsored by the Audrey Love Charitable Foundation. One often finds the Beethoven programmed as a capstone concert of the season, but the BMC season will continue through August 9th, when the Center's orchestra is conducted by André Raphel Smith with guest soloist Olga Kern.

Llewellyn, the Music Director of the North Carolina Symphony since 2004, is an elegant and poised conductor whose resume includes Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Principal Conductor of the Royal Flanders Philharmonic, Principal Guest Conductor of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and Associate Guest Conductor with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He has affiliations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Among the soloists, only Piazza, a first-year master's degree student at McGill University, was drawn from the Center's Janiec Opera Company. Husband and wife Powell and Shirvis live in Philadelphia from which they launch their operatic and recital engagements; Clement is active as a soloist of both operatic and oratorio roles.

Copland composed Inscape (1957) for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in celebration of its 125th anniversary. It was so-named after English poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins' invention of the term. According to Hopkins, the word suggested "a quasi-mystical illumination, a sudden perception of that deeper pattern, order, and unity which gives meaning to external forms." Perhaps that reference to pattern and structure is what inspired Copland to utilize serial technique for this work, one of only four twelve-tone compositions he ever composed. The aim of the Schoenbergian serialists was to select an order of the twelve possible pitches in such a way that one's sense of tonality was thwarted — hence the term "atonal" music. Underscoring this breach with traditional writing were disjunct melodies, use of extreme ranges, and tones piling up in dissonant, though carefully constructed clusters. In Copland's hands, however, what is usually difficult music to hear becomes more accessible due to his judicious pacing of events and the spaciousness of scoring, the American vernacular wind blowing through the score. Even the widely-spaced melodies are lyrical. The two dissonant opening eleven-note chords, a strident announcement of the piece’s intention, give way immediately as the work samples softer, solo voices in a cogent unfolding of musical rhetoric. If ever a serial composition were approachable, this is it, and the work was beautifully played, although the applause was tepid. Clearly people had come for the Beethoven.

After intermission the orchestra reassembled for the Beethoven, with chorus and soloists absent. This would occasion a lengthy pause between movements three and four while they all filed in ("Has anyone seen a chorus?" quipped Llewellyn), giving the feeling that the chorale finale was, indeed, a separate symphony. This was not the first interruption, as the concertmaster left the stage after the second movement to repair a broken string. Another violinist had left the stage earlier, presumably another victim of the oppressive heat and humidity.

The first movement's dynamics set the dramatic opening tone, the hushed downward melodic arcing morphing into thunderous claps of sound. The tempo seemed just right — fast enough so that the huge dimensions of the movement didn't feel ponderous, yet slow enough so that the musical material didn't whirl by in a blur. The second movement “Scherzo” was characterized by crisp articulations in the winds in perpetuum mobile and long phrases played so well that, though they were often very soft, kept your interest. The pastoral gem of the faster trio was especially delightful. The third movement “Adagio molte e cantabile. Andante moderato,” a set of variations on two themes, seemed a bit hurried, and yet I heard things I hadn't noticed before, especially the wealth of accompanying figures. The chorale finale, by its very nature one of the most exhilarating movements ever written, was dominated by the youthful chorus, whose clear timber, crisp diction, and sheer energy projected well over the orchestra. There is something very moving in hearing young singers embrace these timeless words of optimism and faith. The baritone solos were especially noteworthy. The audience's deep appreciation for the performance resulted in multiple curtain calls.