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Going to a Brevard Music Festival concert is always something of an adventure. On Friday evening, the adventure came in two parts: a sea voyage and a lengthy stay in Rome.
Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103, in 1896 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his debut as a pianist. It is his final concerto, nicknamed “The Egyptian” in part because of the exotic themes he employs and in part because he composed it in Luxor, Egypt. Saint-Saëns himself said that the piece represented a sea voyage. At this concert in the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium (roofed but open at the sides), the voyage was a stormy one, with thunder providing counterpoint throughout the first movement.
But the weather was not a serious distraction. From the moment that Jean-Yves Thibaudet played the opening theme, his singing tone and power captivated the audience. The many runs were executed with a splendid articulation. Sweet passages played by an assured virtuoso were integrated with waves of sound from the Brevard Music Center Orchestra. The second movement was even better. An adapted folk song was passed back and forth from pianist to strings and woodwinds, with Thibaudet and Lockhart showing their respect for the collaborative nature of a great concerto performance. The final Molto Allegro was taken at a breakneck tempo without ever sounding hurried. In toto, this was a definitive reading of this seldom-performed concerto.
After being called back several times for a thunderous ovation (the only thunder by that time, the storm now being history), Thibaudet chose as an encore Chopin’s contemplative Nocturne in Eb, Op. 9 No. 2. He performed it with only slight rubatos and composer-indicated ritardandos. Emphasis was provided through dynamics; the pianissimo passage at measure 26 and the fortissimo at measure 31 were notable. The soloist gave us the most sensitive evocation of the final three measures that I have ever experienced. Thibaudet is an artist with a great sense of balance and proportion at all scales from intimate salon music to the great romantic concertos.
Following intermission, Artistic Director Keith Lockhart and an augmented BMC Orchestra (when did you last see 19 brass players?) performed all three tone poems by Ottorino Respighi having to do with things Roman: Roman Festivals, Fountains of Rome, and Pines of Rome, in that order. I appreciated that Lockhart did not program these in chronological order (ending with Festivals) because I have never been fond of that one. While I admit it is a tour de force of orchestration by a master of the art, to me it is brilliant orchestration of banal subject matter. But that may be just me. I love the other two.
In Fountains of Rome, I was struck by the way in which Lockhart, who conducts without a baton, used his hand shape as part of his dexterous communication. In the second movement ("Triton Fountain"), the multiple levels of sound were never heavy. The sparkle of the third movement ("Trevi Fountain") shimmered and the wistfulness of the final movement ("Villa Medici Fountain") haunted us.
In Pines of Rome, the most admired and most often performed of the Roman Triptych, the Italian master of orchestration is at his best and so was the BMC Orchestra. You seemed to hear the treble cries and shouts of children in the first movement. The rustle of pines solemnly evoked the dead in the second movement. Amidst clarinet, flute, cellos and piano, the recorded sound of a nightingale was only natural in the third movement. And in the final “Pines of the Appian Way,” the afore-mentioned nineteen brass players joined a full woodwind contingent, a half dozen percussionists, two harps and the usual strings to provide us with a vivid rhythmic picture of “the Grandeur that was Rome.” We marched out exhilarated.