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The Brevard Philharmonic launched its 2015-16 season with a fine program consisting of two once-nearly ubiquitous works that are now infrequently heard. The matinee performance was presented in the Paul Porter Center for the Arts at Brevard College before a substantial and appreciative audience that was buzzing with excitement before the first note was played.
The orchestra is marking its 39th season, having been launched as a chamber ensemble in 1976 by Jackson Parkhurst, four years before he headed to the Big City to join the staff of the NC Symphony. From that base he made numerous significant contributions to the cultural life of Raleigh and indeed our whole state. It seems fitting that he and his spouse, a fine dancer whose Raleigh company was to lead to the creation of one of our state's major ballet organizations, have returned to the mountains in their retirement.
The Brevard Philharmonic has grown since then, undergoing many changes (including a gap of several years during which it regrouped). It now seems to be thriving under the seasoned and deliberate leadership of conductor and artistic director Donald Portnoy, whose day job is with the University of South Carolina. The orchestra lists about 75 players on its published roster, and on this occasion it demonstrated fairly consistent strengths in all sections.
After the national anthem, the program began with Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, sketched (we learned from Jane Vial Jaffe's fine program note) in Italy; it shares coequal popularity with the more rough-hewn First Symphony and is among the most distinctive "Finnish" works in the repertoire. The symphony was given a solid performance, with emphatic statements of all its many principal themes and motifs. The winds were remarkably fine, aided by the clear and flattering acoustics of the lovely Scott Concert Hall, and the brasses too, sounded just fine nearly all the time. From the floor of the hall, to the right (stage left), the lower strings were impressive, and the overall sound was well balanced and consistently distinct. That the work was clear and distinct but not particularly exciting was most likely due to the tempi selected, but in the grand sweep of the piece this seemed to make little lasting difference in the view of the audience, which rewarded the work's stirring conclusion with considerable applause.
The second half brought a glistening Steinway to the lip of the stage and a true powerhouse pianist to play the solo part of Tchaikovsky's celebrated Piano Concerto No. 1, handsomely accompanied by the orchestra under Portnoy's attentive leadership. The soloist, striking to see and to hear, was Natasha Paremski, whose bio suggests comparisons with Martha Argerich but whose playing reminded this listener of Gina Bachauer in terms of her astonishing power and dexterity. She launched into the concerto like a house afire – or as another critic mentioned, like a racehorse leaving the starting gate. She did this fairly consistently throughout the performance, at times seeming almost to want to propel the proceedings to a higher level of animation and speed, although truth to tell there was plenty of velocity where it counted and everyone on the stage (and in the hall) seemed caught up by her compelling, captivating, and enchanting playing of this classic "war horse" concerto. It, too, is not as often heard as it once was, so this was a special treat on several levels – the fact of the performance itself, the magnificence of the playing of this great American pianist of Russian birth, and the heartwarming support of the Brevard Philharmonic. In the past the music has been used at gala concerts for various occasions, including – during WWII – the sale of war bonds. The season-opening performance we heard was in keeping with such concerts of bygone times, in terms of its excellence. Well done!
The crowd went nuts, to borrow a word from a different context. After being recalled with waves of applause, the guest artist played the Precipitato finale of Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7. (Hear it here, from an earlier concert.) The crowd then went wilder still.
Be on the lookout for Paremski! It was definitely worth a round-trip of around 550 miles to hear her with this orchestra in Brevard!
The orchestra's next concert will be presented in the same venue on November 15. For details, see our calendar.
Note: A recording of a 1943 war bond concert with Horowitz and the NBC Symphony may be heard here.