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Many people think of the Brevard Music Festival as the venue that brings to Western North Carolina superstars such as this year's Itzhak Perlman and Garrick Ohlsson. Others revel in the steady diet of fine orchestral concerts conducted by Keith Lockhart, JoAnn Falletta, Mathias Bamert, Ken Lam, and others. Still others overdose in the operas. But since this is first and foremost a teaching festival, my favorite each year is the "Soloists of Tomorrow" concert featuring winners of the Jan and Beattie Wood Concerto Competition. Preliminary competition is in sections – woodwind, brass, strings and piano – winnowing one hundred prospects into fifteen finalists, from whom five or six are chosen by an outside judge to appear in concert with the BMC Orchestra.
"I heard Tiffany Chang when she won the 2014 Concerto Competition playing the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto." I plan to tell people that after she is famous. Remarkable for someone who turns sixteen this year, Tiffany Chang has a creamy upper register complemented by a guttural lower register that is simply sensual. She has a huge sound, the agility to make sudden shifts from first to third position while retaining unerring intonation, shifts gears smoothly, and acts as though double stopping is child's play. Maybe it is child's play – she has been concertmaster of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony in Mesa, AZ, since she was ten years old. In the Tchaikovsky, she collaborated actively with the BMC Orchestra's conductor Ken Lam, locking her gaze into his as she passed themes smoothly from solo violin into the hands of the full orchestra. Her interpretation showed a perky sense of the joy of the piece, was playful when the score called for it, and her cadenza gave me shivers. I haven't heard a young violinist with this much musical maturity since Hilary Hahn.
Being on the same program as Tiffany Chang was almost unfair, but if we had only heard the other five soloists, we would have come away delighted. Joshua Schwartz opened the concert playing the third movement Rondo of Richard Strauss's Horn Concerto No. 1. He reacted to a small bobble by screwing up his eyes – he was clearly striving for perfection, something elusive on a French horn. His tone was mellow, and he provided nice contrasts between the bold forte announcements and the lyric mezzopiano/mezzoforte passages.
Deanna Cirielli performed the harp solo part of Debussy's Danse sacrée et danse profane. She showed confidence in her interpretation, with accelerandos and rubatos that were heartfelt and inspired, and which the orchestra followed easily. She is unusual in that few sixteen-year-olds have been playing harp for ten years, but she has.
Shi-Wen Fan played Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto. This work, commissioned by Benny Goodman, has many jazz elements and an unusual structure of two movements played without pause, separated by a clarinet cadenza. Fan was lyric in the opening slow section, danced to the beat in the Latin-inspired sections, and reveled in the repeated riffs of the second movement, accompanied at times by pizzicato strings and a slap bass that reminded me of Slam Stewart.
Nathan Ryland played the first movement of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major. He clearly appreciates the work, understands it, and has both the musicianship and the strong piano technique required to play it. One of the benefits of an appearance such as this is to expose a young and talented musician to the added demands of appearing with an orchestra. This performance relied a little too much on having Maestro Lam follow Ryland's solo line; the orchestra was simply an accompaniment and I did not sense the rapport of soloist and orchestra that characterizes a great performance.
The final work was the last movement, Allegro scherzando, of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, with Ying Li as soloist. Early in the movement, the violas get their moment in the sun, providing sentimentality in a theme that is then passed to the piano, which catches the pass and runs toward an imaginary goal line. Later, the same theme is milked for all its lushness by the violins. As the concerto reached its end, I had memories of Trevor Howard leaving for Africa and Celia Johnson going back to her husband in Noël Coward's great movie Brief Encounter, which featured that concerto. It was a nostalgic way to end a memorable day with six fine young musicians.
The festival continues through August 3. For details, see our calendar.