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Chamber Music Review

BMC: Copland, Bernstein, and Aldridge

July 30, 2007 - Brevard, NC:

\In the Scott Concert Hall of the Porter Center at Brevard College we find a good portion of the summer chamber music concerts for the Brevard Music Center. This is a smart move: the instruments and players are out of the weather — weather that could affect the various open air settings at the BMC campus — and this on-purpose, real-world, permanent facility replicates the environment where students will work in the future. Whether the students are playing or listening, this facility balances their summer experience.

This program featured American composers and had a categorical division of style. The first half, consisting of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, had all the characteristics of the 12-tone or dodecaphonic burp, fit, and dart style, while the second half featured excerpts from a new American opera with a more tonal pallet by Robert Aldridge.

Bernstein’s "Halil," a Hebrew word for "flute," was originally composed for solo flute, strings, percussion, and harp and also used unseen alto flute and piccolo. This performance used flute (Dilshad Posnock), piano (Craig Nies) and four percussion (Conrad Alexander, Alison Chang, Jay Ganser and Vishal Panchal).

Right away you could hear that this is one of those "counting" pieces where everybody is intensely focused on preparation and meter. The snare drum has 300 measures rest, then plays for five beats, then rearranges music arrayed across two music stands and prepares for the next thing. We heard alternate lines of rhythmic familiarity from West Side Story along with darting octave clichés and a 12-tone row somewhere in there that defined the tune. There is lots of getting ready for the next thing, and there are moments of brilliant execution. Works like this serve student composers with a solid foundation in the history of form and style. But without the back story and some relationship to a larger whole it’s a tough sell, especially if you bought a ticket and committed to the night. All hail TEVO.

Copland’s Sextet for String Quartet, Clarinet, and Piano shows many similar traits though it has less of an idealistic approach. Composed originally as "Short Symphony" from 1931-33, it went nearly ten years without a performance due to its complexity of rhythm. A transcription for strings, piano, and clarinet allowed it to flower. This is an early work yet one can hear Copland’s staple elements and distinctive images to be heard later in Rodeo and Billy the Kid. The players were Andrew Cooperstock, piano. Steve Cohen, clarinet, and a string quartet with William Terwilliger, Jason Posnock, Eric Koontz, and Aron Zelkowicz. Again, while the tune was elusive, the playing was first rate.

After intermission, composer Robert Aldridge walked on stage to introduce his opera Elmer Gantry, due for its premiere in Nashville on November 16. He gave a monologue on the creative process and gestation of the work. It is based on the memorable book by Sinclair Lewis, first American winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1930. Four vocal excerpts from the opera were sung by baritone Keith Phares and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera, who will star in the stage production. The prodigious Bruce Murray, BMC Artistic Administrator and Dean, and Director of Keyboard Studies at Brevard College, tossed the orchestral reduction from the piano with uncommon ease, a trait also exhibited by his wife Jan during previous concerts. Included among the four works performed were individual arias and a love duet, though no titles were announced. In addition, a tape was played featuring a medley of four brief themes from the opera that included a full chorus and displays gospel roots.

Aldridge is in his second summer as BMC Composer in Residence. He is Chair and Associate Professor of Music Composition and Theory at Montclair State University and has received numerous honors including an NEA grant and a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2002.

In general, the Porter Center has an excellent hall with adjustable acoustic curtains, excellent sight lines, and ease of access. Unfortunately, some within the BMC structure — or perhaps the visiting musicians themselves — insist upon using acoustic shells on the main stage. It is possible the musicians prefer this arrangement because they can hear each other better in the chamber music setting. While that may be, a comparative listening test should be run, for this arrangement effectively removes the hall itself from the total sonic equation and deprives the audience of an optimum listening experience. I've spent a lot of time in this place, and the shells aren't a good idea for listeners. Steve Cohen’s clarinet in the Copland piece was lost in its lower registers, and similar effects were experienced by the singers.

Let the hall do the work.

Note: The BMC season ends on August 5 with Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, conducted by David Effron. See our calendar for details of remaining concerts.