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There were only two works on this last concert in Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium by the Brevard Music Center’s Brevard Sinfonia, a crack ensemble of College Division players, but within them lay worlds of musical expression. The Ravel Piano Concerto in G (1929-30) with soloist Sandra Wright Shen was followed after intermission by Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D (“Titan,” 1884-88). It is clear that these young players are no longer cutting their teeth, but have put the zwieback toasts aside some time ago for these sorts of meaty main courses. As one former faculty member of the Brevard Music Center Orchestra recently told me, “The kids play now as well as we faculty did many years ago.”
Ken Lam, who is Resident Conductor at the Center, is one of the most exciting conductors I’ve seen. He is both elegantly poised and sophisticated and viscerally connected to the music, clearly communicating elements of style as well as cues. It must be thrilling to perform under his direction. The latest addition to his long and impressive resume is that of Orchestra Director at Montclair State University, NJ beginning this fall.
Ms. Shen is currently based in Northern California and has performed as a soloist and chamber musician in the United States and Asia. She has won several first prizes in competitions, including the 1997 Hilton Head International Piano Competition and the 1996 Mieczyslaw Munz Piano Competition. She has recorded for Taiwan Rock Music label and was a Piano Lecturer at Southern Illinois University.
The Ravel was a soothing tonic for the oppression of summer’s heat and humidity. Beguiling in its celebration of sheer sound and color, the work embraces a number of idioms — jazz and some Iberian-inflected melodies — all done in a light-hearted manner. Shen’s technique was up to all the fast-finger maneuvering while maintaining the airiness the concerto (which Ravel had labeled a Divertissement) required. Rhythmic precision and well-coordinated tempi and mood changes were heard throughout. The second movement was astonishingly beautiful, proving that often it’s the simplest musical materials — a single melody with bare accompaniment — that can be the most moving. Shen has the poise of a mature player who draws you into the still, quiet beauty of each and every moment, a feat of intense concentration so gratifying to hear. The extended English horn solo was one of the performance’s high points. The third and fast movement dispels the trance with a few punched chords. More jazziness, coupled this time with suggestions of marches and folk elements, work their way into the madcap finger work leading to its final chords. A much deserved ovation recalled her to the stage.
By the time the Mahler rolled around, night had settled in and all was still. I couldn’t help thinking that Mahler would have loved to have his music performed in such a beautiful setting, one which resonated with the many natural elements in the work. The first movement opens with 8 octaves of a sustained A, against which fanfares (some offstage) and chirpings are heard, like some primal beasts stirring to life. Mahler has put us on notice that it’s the woodwinds and brass that will be coming to the fore. With the faster tempo comes the first melody, garnered from the composer’s own Songs of a Wayfarer. The movement is massive and intricately varied in mood with plenty of exposure within the orchestra by section and by soloist.
The second movement, elegantly played, takes the form of an old-fashioned scherzo and trio (Ländler) whose formal divisions are marked by horn signals. The third movement is the famous funeral march, inspired by an etching by Jacques Callot of forest animals ironically bearing the body of the woodsman to the grave. The theme, a parody of “Frère Jacques,” is played first by solo double bass, and then is taken up in imitation throughout the orchestra. The raucous addition of klezmer band music amps up the level of irony to a very creepy level.
The real fire is saved for the finale, which returns to the opening movement’s stillness and themes, and blazes in glory to its thunderous finale with the rear level of brass players standing. This is music which literally pulls you also out of your seat, and makes you wonder how audiences could ever have not loved it. This crowd couldn’t get enough, the ovation calling Lam to return to the stage four times. Bravi tutti, especially all wind and brass players. What a performance!