This was the last concert of the season for Brevard Music Center’s Transylvania Symphony Orchestra, and there were many moments when I had to remind myself this was a youth orchestra. Under the direction of Steven Smith, and with 14-year-old Brandon Garbot serving as concertmaster, the orchestra exhibited some of its most impressive playing of the summer. The summer music festival ends this Sunday, August 10.
Young orchestras or bands often seem to do better with programmatic works than more abstract ones. This is why I was pleasantly surprised by the polished performance of the first work, Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, conducted by Smith without a score. The big string sound was there, the soloists were uniformly secure, and the ensemble was highly responsive to the conductor’s directives. The few intonation problems I heard in the winds at the beginning were later resolved. Above all, this was an inspired performance.
Next on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Op. 20a. Commissioned by the imperial directorate of the Moscow theaters, the ballet was first produced at the Bolshoi Theater in 1877, only to be quickly withdrawn. The composer contemplated a revision of the score, but died before the work could be done. In 1893 the ballet attracted the attention of the great choreographer Marius Petipa (1822-1910), who successfully mounted a complete, restaged production of the original work on January 27, 1895. Since then, the ballet has been acknowledged as one of the greatest works of the Russian romantic school. Op 20a is a distillation of several movements from the ballet — on this program there were eight: Scène, Valse, Danse des Cygnes, Pas d’Action, Danse Espagnole, Danse Napolitaine, Mazurka, Czardas – Danse Hongroise. Some performance highlights were in the jaunty Danse des Cygnes — beautiful sounds from paired oboes and flutes against the bassoon obbligato; in the Pas d’Action — lovely harp arppegios followed by solo violin (Brandon Garbot) and later cello (Kegham Bedoyan) were silently applauded at the movement’s end by the conductor; the Danse Napolitaine, a nicely executed trumpet solo (Ben Pattison). The ensemble’s youthfulness could be heard occasionally in the Valse, where the offbeats played by the horns were reactive and therefore dragged, and where its climbing phrases in the strings begged for more intensity.
After intermission the orchestra really ignited, first in Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Modeste Mussorgsky was born in Karevo, Russia, in 1839 and died in St. Petersburg in 1881. Night on Bald Mountain is his only orchestral work, the famous Pictures at an Exhibition having been composed for solo piano and orchestrated later by Ravel. It was begun in June of 1867 and completed just thirteen days later. As early as 1858 the composer had been thinking of composing a three-act opera based on Gogol’s St. John’s Eve, but nothing came of the project. In April 1866 Mussorgsky wrote to Balakirev to say he was composing “witches’ music” in the form of a tone poem with the following program: (1) assembly of the witches, their chatter and gossip; (2) cortege of Satan; (3) unholy glorification of Satan; and (4) witches’ sabbat. His inspiration for the work came from a book on witchcraft by Khotinsky, in which the sixteenth-century testimony of a woman put on trial for witchcraft is recounted in chilling detail. According to the book, the locations where sorcerers and witches were said to have gathered were usually on the tops of isolated mountains, such as on Bald Mountain near Kiev. In Night on Bald Mountain, Mussorgsky was inspired to write a work of bold originality, but unfortunately Balakirev, his mentor, didn’t think much of it, and the work was put aside, never to be performed during Mussorgsky’s lifetime. The orchestra played its heart out in this and the program’s final work, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome.
Respighi (1879-1936) enjoyed considerable fame and success during his lifetime. In 1913 he received an appointment as Professor of Composition to the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and was made director in 1924. However, administrative duties did not appeal to him, and he resigned the post two years later to devote himself to composition, travel, and conducting. In 1924 his most famous orchestral work, The Pines of Rome, a sequel to The Fountains of Rome, was premiered in Rome, and performed the following year with tremendous success in several U.S. cities. The score requires the unusual effect of a recorded nightingale for any performance (no wind substitutions are allowed), while the scoring for buccinae, six medieval brass instruments, may be (and usually are) changed to modern ones. The work progresses non-stop through four vignettes of pines in four different locations — "The Pines of the Villa Borghese" (depicting children playing and marching), "The Pines Near a Catacomb" featuring chant-like low brass, "The Pines of the Janiculum" (a nocturne evocative of the temple of the Roman god Janus), and "The Pines of the Appian Way." For this last section, the tramping of ancient Roman legions on this famous road to Rome is simulated in the climactic use of brass, usually placed offstage. Here, ranks of brass players were stationed outside the auditorium on all sides, their stand lights faintly glowing in the dark.
The shattering climax of the assembled players of this movement finally overpowered the rhythmic rasping of the cicada chorus, which had lent its own ambiance to the piece’s quieter moments. The audience responded with whoops and cheers in a thunderous ovation richly deserved by this talented young orchestra.