Orchestral Music Review Print

Brevard Philharmonic Season Opener a Stellar Event

September 28, 2008 - Brevatd, NC:

The Brevard Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Donald Portnoy, performed the season opener in Brevard College's Porter Center for the Performing Arts. The orchestra, 67 members strong, was headed by concertmaster Ralph Congdon. The featured soloist was pianist Susan Starr, Distinguished Professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. Debuting with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 6, she entered the Curtis Institute at the age of 7, graduating in 1961 and winning in 1962 the Silver Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. She has since judged that competition (in 1994) and toured extensively, worldwide.

The program opened with a lovely rendition of Mendelssohn's "The Hebrides" ("Fingal's Cave"), in B minor, Op. 26 (1830), a concert overture written when the composer was 21 while on a trip to the Hebrides, a chain of islands off the coast of Scotland. Mendelssohn visited Fingal's Cave, a striking sea cave on the island of Staffa, during a storm and quickly penned the famous brooding opening theme. The work was revised and premiered in London in 1832. The opening and subsequent sections featuring the low strings, though lovely, sounded underpowered when compared with the massed high string sound. Kudos to the expressive playing in the clarinets, which won them solo bows.

Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor ("Unfinished"), D.759, was begun in October 1822; the composer completed two movements and sketched a third movement scherzo. The work remained unfinished and was first performed in Vienna on December 17, 1865, 43 years after it had been composed. Scholars have wondered why Schubert never finished the work.  Some have suggested that perhaps the work really is complete as it is.  Others have wondered if Schubert simply lost interest in the project, or perhaps found he could not write a satisfactory third movement to follow the first two. In any case, the symphony stands as one of Schubert's most successful symphonic works, due in large part to its wealth of beautiful melodies (three alone in the first theme group of the first movement), choice of unusual key relationships, surprising modulations, and its comparatively succinct developmental workings. The orchestra's ensemble playing in the second movement was especially good, as were the solos in the winds and principal horn.

After intermission the program continued with two works by Rachmaninov. The familiar and hauntingly beautiful Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14, the last of the 1912 set, is a textless song to be sung by either soprano or tenor on a vowel of the singer's choosing. The piece's enduring place in the concert repertoire, secured by its utter melodic beauty and pathos, is evidenced by the numerous arrangements existing for various instrumental media, including the orchestral arrangement by the composer performed here. Unfortunately, this was the disappointment of the afternoon's program. The piece, so familiar to everyone, was tossed off quickly as though it were but a preamble to the star attraction; it needed more care given to phrasing, intonation, and ensemble.

The program concluded with Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, p. 43, for piano and orchestra, first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, Leopold Stokowski conducting, with the composer at the piano. The work is actually a set of 24 clearly detectable and variously difficult variations on a theme that, like a concerto, tax the musicianship of the strongest pianists. Starr is a fascinating pianist to watch as well as hear. Everything is there — technique, control, plenty of power when needed, the finest musical instincts — without a bit of wasted motion. She gave a bravura performance and seemed to draw the best out of the accompanying orchestra.

There will be four more concerts this season (Nov. 23, Feb. 8, Apr. 19, and May 17 — all at 3:00 p.m. in the Porter Center), and some of them will feature local artists. The Feb. 8 concert will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the death of Haydn. For details of these programs, click here.