Orchestral Music Review

Brevard Philharmonic Orchestra Honors Paul Barber

March 25, 2007 - Brevard, NC:

The Brevard Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Emerson Head came together on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to present a concert in honor of their late colleague Paul Barber. The Scott Concert Hall in the Porter Center for Performing Arts at Brevard College played host to this relatively short program which included a world premiere, "In Memoriam, Paul Barber" by Mary Jane Lang, who is a violist in the orchestra. Being that it was my first time in this hall, I was immediately struck by the apparent advanced acoustical design. The brick walls along the side have a convex curvature and all of the architectural components look to have been geared toward achieving a purity of sound. The recently installed organ, too, was impressively built with a case reminiscent of the European baroque style. Remarkable as it was though, it was not the performance space I was there to review. So on to the music!

The program opened with the premiere by Lang. It is a short fantasy for solo trombone, solo clarinet, and orchestra. The program notes indicated that the trombone symbolized Barber, who was a trombonist as well as a conductor, and the clarinet represented his wife Fern, who was in attendance. Though I didn't time it, the work couldn't have lasted for more than three minutes and had somewhat of a jazzy feel. The soloists, Kathleen Young, clarinet, and Kenneth Kraus, trombone, performed the nostalgic tribute cleanly, but with emotion; both had played alongside Barber in different local groups. The orchestra, especially the strings, were noticeably out of tune and remained that way for the remainder of the concert. The pure acoustic of the hall was not their friend on this day. The work itself was great for this context, as the people who knew this couple undoubtedly understood the conversation between the instruments in a more intimate way than the average listener. But I'm afraid it will not have a more far reaching appeal than that because of its lack of development.

The concert's theme remained melancholy with the performance of the Pavane, Op. 50, of Gabriel Fauré. Probably the composer's most famous work, he describes it as a melody that randomly popped into his head and "germinated by itself." It certainly doesn't sound that arbitrary. The reading given by the BPO included the Brevard High School Chorus who did a brilliant job that most assuredly belied their age. They sang in French with accuracy and with the confidence of a professional chorus. The orchestra held the rhythm, but was once again hampered by an overtly out of tune string section. The recapitulation of the main theme with the solo flute after the short exposition midway through the work was surreal and worth mentioning. Head then chose to close the first half with Bedrich Smetana's "The Moldau," from Ma Vlast. This piece, in keeping with the concert's prevailing nostalgia, is a tone poem in which the composer reminisces about the river Moldau that runs through his "fatherland" (Ma Vlast); what is now the Czech Republic. It begins with a trickle, then grows slowly into fierce rapids, and finally enters triumphantly into the capital city of Prague. The orchestra painted well the picture of the mighty Moldau and the serene Bohemian countryside through which it runs, and despite the aforementioned problem, along with some sour notes in the brass section, turned in a memorable performance.

The music of Gabriel Fauré would once again be featured in the program's second half. His Requiem is well loved for many reasons, not the least of which is its brevity and accessibility. That said, it is also a work of deep profundity and can be a difficult task, technically and emotionally, for a young chorus. The Brevard High School Chorus returned to the stage though, along with the Brevard-Davidson River Presbyterian Church Festival Chorus, and guest conductor Bingham Vick, Jr. Also joining the BPO were soprano Kathyrn Gresham and baritone Roberto Flores. The combined choruses produced an exceptional sound. Delicacy was not their strong suit though as they showed limitation of range in the softer "Offertorium." But when they needed to resound, as in the "Dies Irae," they filled the hall with sound. Gresham was beautiful in the ethereal "Pie Jesu." Soft, angelic serenity hung over the audience as she sang this noble prayer. Flores, too, gave an astounding performance in the "Libera Me." He has a wide range and a solid, clear voice without too much vibrato which is well suited for Fauré. The BPO under Vick had trouble keeping a consistent rhythm and the brass section was cranky. The strings, sadly, never pulled together, causing balance problems along with the seemingly mounting tuning issues. Despite these points, the Requiem was filled with sentiment and was a fitting and honorable way for the musical community of Brevard to say a final goodbye to their fallen comrade.

The acoustics of the Scott Concert Hall will have an immeasurable effect on any performer who performs in it. I could hear every note clearly from where I was sitting. The BPO is a talented group of individuals playing in a hall that is extremely sensitive. This is, unfortunately, to their disadvantage, but I am sure with time they will become more accustomed to the dynamics of the auditorium and continue to grow exponentially.