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Publicity for the Brevard Music Festival tends to emphasize celebrity guests and popular concerti. The website currently flashes: "This Week: Ricky Skaggs with Orchestra, Don Pasquale, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, Liszt Piano Concerto No.1..." and almost as an afterthought concludes with "... and Concerto Competition Finals." I remind you that the Brevard Music Festival is primarily and above all a teaching festival. Selected from many applicants through rigorous auditions, four hundred student musicians receive seven or eight weeks of instruction from a sterling faculty and also lead a simulation of the hectic life of a professional musician.
In addition to performances by crowd-pleasing celebrities, there are many events in Brevard's calendar that are distinctly part of the Center's educational mission. To fully appreciate the Festival, you should take in some of these events where students outnumber paying customers in the audience. You'll get a taste of the student experience and will be impressed.
One such event this year was Wednesday's celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Maud Powell. The Ingram Auditorium on the Brevard College campus was the venue for a program of four chamber pieces that were important in her career. Powell was a world-renowned violinist who studied with the best teachers in Leipzig, Paris and Berlin, and became the first American violin virtuoso. The Maud Powell Society for Music and Education, based in Brevard, has a mission to educate people about this under-appreciated musician, and during this concert, the society's president Karen Schaffer took the stage along with Jason Posnock, Director of Artistic Planning & Educational Programs at BMC, to explain each selection's role in illuminating Powell as a pivotal figure in the history of classical music in the United States.
The first selection was Amy Beach's Violin Romance, Op. 23. Amy Beach was the first important American female composer and a piano virtuoso, and her sesquicentennial is also being celebrated this year. Powell and Beach (both then aged 25) premiered the Romance during a meeting of women musicians at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Marjorie Bagley, violin, and Douglas Weeks, piano, gave the work an appropriately emotional reading at this week's concert. Like most Beach compositions, it is solidly constructed, romantic, and occasionally virtuosic.
The first work was from early in Powell's career. The next work was from its end. In her final concert before dying of a heart attack at age 52, Powell played one of her favorite sonatas, the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor. It was performed in Brevard by violinist Jay Christy with Weeks accompanying. They gave a rather perfunctory reading of the first two movements (especially the Allegro), but the third and fourth movements redeemed their performance. Motifs passed back and forth, and the virtuosic demands were met with taste and skill.
In 1910, Powell met Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the English composer of mixed European and African descent who was in America touring his highly popular Hiawatha's Wedding Feast cantata. Coleridge-Taylor had adapted several Negro spirituals into art songs. These included "Deep River," which Powell was moved to adapt in a version for violin and piano. She was the first white American classically-trained musician to perform works based on the African-American tradition. Her adaptation was here performed by Christy and Weeks, and demonstrated Powell's ability as an arranger.
The final work on the program represented Powell's interest in chamber music. Felix Mendelssohn originally wrote his String Quintet No.1 in A, Op. 18, in 1826 when just seventeen (although a revised version came in 1832 when he turned 23). Thus it was composed the same year as his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, and a year after his Octet for Strings. The string quintet has many stylistic similarities to these two early works, but also the composer makes interesting use of the two violas, often setting them in contradistinction to the two violins in the quintet, two opposite two bouncing ideas across the stage.
The Andante second movement was thick with inner voices, sounding almost Brahms-like (but with no hemiolas). Following a false entry and a restart at the beginning of the treacherously fast third movement, the five musicians delivered that scherzo with precision, exciting the listener and proving once again that a tempo choice just short of the breaking point often elicits an excellent reading of the composer's intent in a fast movement. Most appropriately in a concert celebrating a female performer, four female and one lone male musician performed the Mendelssohn. Violinists were Byron Tauchi and Margaret Karp, both long-time instructors at Brevard. Violas were played by veteran instructor Maggie Snyder and newcomer Jennifer Snyder Kozoroz. Susannah Chapman played cello in this grand finale of a thoughtful concert.