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In this final week of the '07 Brevard Music Center season, major ensembles present their final concerts. This one was by the Transylvania Symphony Orchestra, defined as high school age students from the Music Center's Young Artists Division. They were 104 strong, including four teaching assistants, and led by Thomas Joiner. They worked two hours a day for two solid weeks to prepare the Overture to William Tell by Rossini, the first Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by Dmitri Shostakovich, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," and Igor Stravinsky's Firebird. Now, you've got to hand it to the kids. That's a pretty stout program. But were they up to it?
In the traditional position of really familiar, zippy, energetic, opening piece we have Gioachino Rossini's famous Overture to the opera William Tell. If we were expectant for some towering truth to pass regarding the kids' summer education we were let down. That's because this particular audience is exactly the demographic profile who grew up in front of Saturday morning TV shows ingesting Rossini opera themes from cartoon shows and then, a half hour later, rode the high plains with the Lone Ranger. We never had a chance. It was so good some audience members were shouting "Hi Ho Silver! Away!" The brass blew all the right parts and the strings were really zippy. It was great.
Next, in the really important art piece with revered soloist position, came the Op. 35 Shostakovich C minor Concerto with Craig Nies at the piano and a surprising sub-artist feature in William Campbell performing on trumpet. Nies is an associate professor at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music, and it shows. His repertoire is highly concentrated in 19th-century works, yet here Shostakovich is just over the threshold in 1906, ultimately using a harmonic vocabulary a bit advanced from his predecessors. This work started off as a concerto for piano and trumpet, but wound up as a piano concerto with a really meaty trumpet part. BMC Faculty member Campbell (of the University of Michigan, where they know a thing or two about playing horns outdoors) was simply brilliant, keeping both his station and intonation spot-on through-out. Otherwise the entire performance left a rather vanilla, staid impression and the piece never really came out of the gate to reveal itself. Maybe I just need to hear it a few more times.
After intermission, in the really major orchestral art ensemble position, we heard Pulitzer winner Sam Barber's famous slow movement from his Op. 11 string quartet orchestrated for strings alone. It is hard to miss with this piece. It is well known, it is a perfect study piece for young string players, it is a favorite of audiences, and it is also gorgeous. But Joiner took us through it like a metronome and never let us enjoy some of those important cadences. The performance was wonderfully in tune with good ensemble. But it just didn't breathe, didn't phrase, and didn't have any sense of artistic identity. It was presented by the numbers and, as such, was very disappointing — like visiting an old friend who talks the entire time, then ushers you out the door.
So we were ready for Stravinsky when Firebird came up in the position of really booming, exciting big-art ender. Again everything was in tune and the ensemble was precise. In the later movements there is more percussion and brass that come in heavy doses to wake up the senses and send the rhythm meter off the scale. Recall we just heard The Rite of Spring a week ago, and this performance rivaled that one for biting, jabbing, punctuated orchestra music. The kids went the distance by delivering solid performances. I didn't like everything I heard, but I did like the band.