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Well into his second season, Principal Conductor Keith Lockhart has grandiose plans for the Brevard Music Center. Among them is challenging the Transylvania Symphony Orchestra, comprised of high school players, with some of the biggest works in the late Romantic literature. Last summer it was Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. This season there are to be not one but three Tchaikovsky Symphony performances by three different ensembles; one of these, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 fell first to this young orchestra. Also on the program in Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium was Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A, K. 201 and Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 featuring Angela Park, the winner of the 2009 National Federation of Music Clubs competition. In her early twenties, Park is a Curtis Institute graduate and is currently working on a master’s degree at New England Conservatory with cellist Laurence Lesser who holds the Walter W. Naumburg Chair in Music. To some it may seem that Lockhart is overreaching. After all, these are only high school students, together for only six weeks, and rehearsing this concert music is only part of what they do. Yet, his strategy seems to be working, and under his direction the youngsters are playing better and better.
The program began with the Mozart. Composed in 1774 while the composer was still in Salzburg, the work nonetheless shows traces of Viennese sophistication that became the bedrock of Mozart’s mature years. The writing is transparent, yet pithy, for Mozart had an uncanny ability to transform the simplest ideas into marvelous music. The piece begins with a figure that gives the amazing impression the music has already been in progress for some time. A breathless repeated-note motive climbs incessantly, then morphs into a graceful turn of phrase. The development is spiced up by its intriguing counterpoint and even a new theme. I felt the tempo was too studied and the movement lacked a certain ease of rhythmic flow, but then again, they were just getting going. The horns, for the most part had a beautiful and prominent part, with only a clam or two. The string sound has strengthened since last summer, with more warmth and even better projection. The subdued second movement "Andante" featuring muted, gossamer sounds in the strings was pure elegance, with a gorgeous oboe solo. The third movement "Menuetto" was noteworthy for its sharp dynamic contrasts and smartly executed dotted rhythmic figures. The unrestrained finale "Allegro con spirito" was the most impressive of all, as there were thorny scale passages in the strings, all exposed, that would rocket upward, then come to a screeching halt — all of this over and over, as if Mozart couldn’t get enough of this little joke.
Next before intermission was the Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) concerto, composed in 1872 and premiered the following year at the Paris Conservatoire. Typically in three movements, this concerto consists of a single-movement divided into sections by multiple tempo changes(Allegro non troppo–Allegro molto–Tempo I–Allegretto con moto–Tempo I–Un peu moins vite–Molto allegro), but unified by the transformation of its principal theme. Other departures from the norm are his lighter “Mozartian” orchestration of paired woodwinds, trumpets, and horns with timpani and strings, further enabling the cello to be clearly heard in all its nuances, and the elimination of the formal orchestral introduction of the soloist. Here, it’s one chord and, bang, the soloist is off like a shot with the opening salvo. Park is a rising star and her negotiation of the concerto’s difficult passagework (rapid scalar figures, double stops, register changes) was deft and sure. Her musical maturity shone particularly in the exquisite pacing of the slow sections and her consistently warm, singing tone.
As impressive as the concert was to this point, it was with the Tchaikovsky that the orchestra made its surest emotional connection. There is something about the overt emotionality of this repertoire that seems to grip and engage young players and inspire them to do more than their best. From the opening brass fanfare of the “fate” motive, the musical marker of the movement’s form and signature sound, the ensemble dug in and never let up. Of course, the joy of attending a live performance is to see what happens. After the first movement a few members of the audience erupted in spontaneous applause which was then encouraged by a smiling Lockhart. During the movement someone (a percussionist?) scurried off-stage and back on, all bent over, to the amusement of those around me. The second movement "Andantino in modo di canzona" featured some exquisite solos from the oboe, clarinet, and bassoon and beautiful rankings of orchestral sound, their profound beauty tempered by some hilarious “peeling” melodic fragments that sprang from all corners of the wind section.
In movement three "Scherzo-Pizzicato ostinato: Allegro," Tchaikovsky sharply etched three groups: pizzicato strings, woodwinds with prominent flashes of piccolo, and marching brass chords. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, Lockhart set the whole thing in motion, and then relaxed against the rail of the podium to watch for a few moments in detached bemusement. The take-no-prisoners tempi of this movement and the finale "Allegro con fuoco" would tax the most seasoned pro. Caution was thrown to the winds and scales ripped through the air at lightning speed. Only the young can take such risks, and only a conductor sure enough of the gifts of his players would ever attempt such a feat. The whooping and shouting was on before the piece was finished, and with his hand over his heart and face flushed with emotion, a beaming Lockhart gestured his thanks to the audience and his players.