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Comes now the Gina Bachauer Memorial Concert at Brevard Music Center. Traditionally it's a piano program because Bachauer was a pianist, natch, and a memorial endowment was made by friends to present a piano artist every season. In fact it's a split deal because we got Rossini's evergreen Overture to La Gazza Ladra and the Symphony No. 4 of Johannes Brahms (oh boy, a chance to sleep!) in the first half. At intermission, the W-P Auditorium stage was reset for Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, with Jon Nakamatsu at the piano. Then, of course, we had all day to watch/hear David Effron at work and catalogue all the funny conducting movements unique to this outstanding musician. His presence is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of any large ensemble on the series, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that waving the stick may not be his strength.
I hate Brahms.
The concert began with "The Star-Spangled Banner" and 89 musicians, with the Maestro at the helm. But I must tell you how good this audience is becoming. We're at about mid-season, long-term ticket holders form the mass of the audience, after all, and this one concert was practically sold out (1,500 seats). They are following the conductor, singing their respective parts in the correct register, using all the words, and becoming more confident with each concert. It is odd to be reporting on that, but you might recall that this was among our first impressions, back on opening night, in June. The difference is really startling. That high note at the end is starting to really shake. I mean, big shake!
Then we got to Rossini's dastardly Thieving Magpie, source of so many wonderful Warner Bros. moments on Saturday mornings past. It's entirely possible everyone got the double entendre inferred when we realized the Overture doesn't relate much to the opera. No matter. Elmer Fudd is opera enough. This piece opens with the snare drum, as does the "SSB," common to military bands of the era but not so much a full orchestra. Maestro Effron wasted little time getting to the heart of this material, and once it was rolling, all that rehearsal time paid off with unified sound, solid ensemble, and a crisp tempo. There were nonetheless moments that reflected our digital age; where the thing was fantastic until this particular point, where it was very obviously not right, but then quickly returned to near-perfect. In our digital age, you can't wiggle the antenna to improve reception or data rate. It either works or it doesn't. It's on or off, no in-between. On the other hand there were big chunks where Effron just stood there, hand on the rail, listing to the music cruise along, with no motions from him at all. I'm beginning to understand what this body language means. I'll tell you more in a minute. I hate Brahms.
Next we heard Brahms Fourth Symphony, in E minor, Op. 98. This is the famous piece we all analyzed in school – the first movement has a descending minor third that – when considered in all possible locations, conditions, and mutations – seems to rule the whole piece. Throughout, we have more rippling arpeggios, motivic manipulations, phrases of grand architectural image, brilliant modulations, tremendous artistic insight, and highly skilled orchestration. It's a mess!
One of Effron's gestures is to mimic the left-hand vibrato action of a violinist. This expression drives the whole string section to play with greater emotion and depth. He is also very good at delineating terraced dynamics, cueing canonic entrances, and keeping everybody in the loop. No small task, that! Perhaps the most revealing motion is when he sits back on his haunches, during the repeat of a lyric figure, to indicate not so much intensity or volume, to make it a little different, more distant – like an echo. Prior to the third movement, it looked like he was talking to the players, explaining what he wanted. But this is not likely, and the opening chords to the fourth movement, played in the woodwinds, were nearly a separate movement, like an entr'acte before the main theme took hold.
Yes, I hate Brahms. It's just too..., too.... Ugh!
After intermission, we met Jon Nakamatsu, a success story straight from the Book of American Dreams. The native Californian was a high school German teacher with a little different career vision, so he went out and won the '97 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and now he doesn't teach German any more.
The traditional piano vs. orchestra joke was not present in this performance. You don't compete with David Effron – you join his program and make nice-nice. Throughout it was clear Nakamatsu is an artist with a huge technique and a poetic sense of meter. Large histrionic arm movements were clearly gestures to benefit the cheap seats. Close examination revealed very little movement from his upper torso or arms to produce the big sound. His entrances were seamless and clearly articulated. When the piano would manipulate the tempo or slightly pulse a phrase, Effron's baton could be seen as a mirror of the aural flow. When the phrase belonged to the piano alone, or when an important cadence approached, Effron looked directly at Nakamatsu's hands to confirm the rubato, and his downbeat precisely mirrored the sense of expectation. The result was a stunning sense of ensemble, really, when you consider how little rehearsal time there is for all these elements – and when you have kids doing the work!
The soloist's cadenzas were stylistically exciting, and he was very good at sustaining long arcs of sound. Speaking of which, the second theme of the fourth movement has been abused enough in the pop arena to confuse the lay public about its origin. If you haven't heard this piece in a while, go to the library, listen to the fourth movement first, and then listen to the entire work. A rewarding musical journey is offered by Rachmaninov, one of the great composer-performer-conductors of all time. In Brevard, Nakamatsu wasn't looking for any sappy recognition. His goal was a straightforward performance of his vision - a vision that included living the dream.
At the bell – I'm sorry – at the end, Nakamatsu and Effron shared thunderous applause, and eventually the guest artist was called back to the piano for an encore. He chose Chopin's Fantasy-Impromptu, Op. posthumous, to the delight of all the piano players scattered through the audience. There were sighs, oohs and ahs, and then cheers. Quite a polished performer, solid artist, and "purdy good keyboard player, that guy." (I love audience quotes.) He remained on campus to teach master classes and share one chamber music performance at the Porter Center.
Maestro Effron is not only earning his keep but also giving a clinic on all the characteristics that make a good Artistic Director/Conductor. I've pointed out an occasional lack of motion – moments when he is not making the beat or is simply standing at the podium, listening to the orchestra. Based on behavior I've seen in the past, I'd guess that these moments reveal a sense of satisfaction and the faith or trust he has in the musicians.
We'll find out soon enough. BMC and David Effron have agreed to a sit-down interview. Watch this space and we'll figure out Truth and what all the weird gestures mean.