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The Brevard Music Center opened its seventy-first season with a scintillating concert; the program paralleled that of the evening in 1995 when David Effron (retiring artistic director) met Bruce Murray (now artistic administrator and Dean of BMC). This warm story was told in the program notes.
The delightfully straightforward program — Schubert's Overture to Rosamunde, D.644, Grieg's A Minor Piano Concerto, Op. 16, and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in C minor, Op. 67 — was perfect for showcasing what the orchestra, Effron, and Murray can do well. And they all performed very well indeed.
Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium has a first-class theatre-cum-concert stage at one end; the usual rest rooms, box office, and control booths at the other end; a roof on laminated arches; and no walls. There is pleasant grass on sides, then woods and verdure. The sound is incredibly good for such a space, and the informality has a good effect on the audience. The orchestra, listed as 83 students and faculty, was all in open collared white shirts, black pants, and black shoes; Maestro Effron was in striped pants, open collared white shirt and white dinner jacket; and Murray contributed to the informal feel, dressed all in black with an open collared shirt.
This is Maestro Effron’s swan-song season. The crowd seemed delighted with his work at BMC; they greeted him with a standing ovation (and well they should!). Effron seemed a little embarrassed with the applause and seldom faced the audience when they were clapping, preferring to pass the praise along to the performers. With everyone still standing, Effron cued a long drum roll and then led the orchestra into a fine symphonic arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
I was saddened to see what I can only describe as yahoos (not the search engine, but Swift’s “YAHOOS, a species of animals utterly incapable of amendment by precept or example”). No one put his hand over his heart; several rows in front of me was a female of the species behaving like a dervish, not seemingly in any display of patriotism, but with a maniacal fervor at her massive cleverness in recognizing this tune.
The first piece, Schubert’s Rosamunde, was brisk and clean — just fine. Having the maestro and orchestra on stage provided a wonderful opportunity to observe his delightfully idiosyncratic style, enthusiastic and generous. He had the orchestra totally under his control, seemingly through affection and not tyrannicism, accomplishing with them wonderful feats of forte but more especially pianissimo. The intonation was very good, especially among the violins and violas.
The stage was completely full of orchestra, so a fair amount of shuffling was required to get the Steinway grand piano on stage for the Grieg. The front lip of the stage was lowered into the pit, the piano loaded, and the stage raised again. Two couples next to me found this to be the highlight of their evening out.
Murray was completely up to the demands of playing in this open-air space; the female yahoo was well in control of the orchestra, directing from her seat in the twilight almost as vigorously as Effron and even more idiosyncratically. Murray, Effron, and the orchestra were as one, even though Murray seemed to be having trouble seeing Effron; I think he was ignoring the yahoo. The orchestral tone color in the first movement — and all evening — was very warm and rich. After the first movement, there was a really large wave of applause; Effron seemed a little impatient at this outburst but waited until all was quiet to continue with the second movement. He then took the orchestra right into the final movement, precluding any applause. But at the end Murray, Effron, and the orchestra received a standing ovation.
What can be said of the Fifth Symphony? Much too much has already been written about it, the best by Beethoven himself, in notes, not words. As the Bible says, there are many gifts but one spirit. I feel safe in saying that there are many different great performances, but only one Fifth Symphony, and this performance was indeed one of those great performances. Everything seemed to come together just right; in addition, Effron’s ineffable ability to get the very best out of a group of very fine young musicians made this a performance that I hope they will carry with them into a long adulthood of making music. Surely everyone knows the Fifth (although I had resisted hearing it until I was in my mid-twenties), so I won’t say a lot about the piece. The wonderful, simple phrase that begins the second movement is about as simplistic and Vienna-Schlagobers as any other early nineteenth-century galanterie; Effron emphasized that simplicity to the hilt, and then it was gone, swept away in complex writing.
Of the fugue, it just isn’t fair to the basses to ask them to play that fast and that cleanly, but they did, and seemingly willingly, too. Effron has a fine way of shaping the long-note-value phrases that arc over the fast passages. He led the orchestra to produce the most issimo of pianissimos that I have ever heard. And these passages were gentle and clear and clean and unforced. I am heaping Effron with all my praise, but I hope that all the players understand that he is just the lightning rod and they are the whole structure beneath. I was especially struck by how distinct the various colors of the instruments were — how the strings were very string-like and the oboes clearly oboes, and yet when Beethoven wrote one of his phrases spanning lowest bass and highest treble, the BMC orchestra strung the phrase together without awkward changes of timbre as the phrase was passed along from instrument to instrument.
At the end, the audience was immediately on its feet, offering a totally well-deserved final ovation.