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Orchestral Music Review

BMC's Beethoven "Pastoral" - Lush Greenery

July 1, 2006 - Brevard, NC:

The Brevard Music Center Institute and Festival is in high motion now. The campers have settled into a rhythm, the faculty are plotting and rehearsing, and both the opening concert and first opera are out of the way. Now we get into the meat of the schedule where recitals, chamber music and orchestra programs come thick and fast, and there are still three operas to go. Multiple venues are also in play, so you really do need to check the dance card. This experience is good training for anyone, providing a gold standard opportunity to discover what kind of demands and flexibility are required for a career in music. Basically, you ride whatever wave you're on and don't look down.

I was musing on these points as the fifth movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, in F, Op. 68 (Pastoral), emerged from the fourth movement's thunder and storm. Up to this point David Effron, conducting without a stick or score, had produced a stunning read and I was beginning to wonder if this might possibly be the finest performance I'd ever heard. The first movement exposition had a gorgeous lush string sound, always in tune, accented by woodwinds and horns with crisp articulations, excellent timpani, and wonderful balance among all sections. All the repeat bars were honored, it was in tune throughout, and it featured a triumphant recapitulation. The second movement had a layered rich timbre in the strings, like you get from bowing over the fingerboard, right around the birds and cuckoo section. Later there was the excellent bassoon of William Ludwig in the second and third movements, and Timothy Adams showed classic restraint and excellent rolls at the timpani. This was truly a world-class sound and experience.

But the nagging question in my mind, enough so that I actually wrote it down in my notebook, was whether they could keep it up. Everyone in the orchestra had worked like dogs since the first half, starting with William Schuman's "American Festival Overture,” certainly a well-crafted and stimulating piece but often gadgety and filled with metric noodling. This was followed by guest artist Richard Stoltzman, clarinet, performing two contrasting sets. His first group was two pieces by Astor Pizzolla, "Contemplación y Danza" and "Milonga" in D. These were very pastoral in nature despite the expectation of South American fireworks. Both had a very lyrical and calming sense, and I don't normally think of Astor Piazzolla, the tango meister, as calming! These were followed by a set of works by Leonard Bernstein: the Sonata, an orchestration of the clarinet and piano work from 1941-2, and "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs." "PFR" dates from a 1949 commission by Woody Herman and his band, but then had a star-crossed gestation period until this title and form finally took root in 1955. Herman never played it, Bernstein inserted and then removed it from his Broadway musical Wonderful Town, and then it languished until Benny Goodman performed it on the Omnibus television show. The particular setting we heard is a 1997 arrangement for Richard Stoltzman by Lukas Foss. If you’ve been keeping score, you can understand that all this material is demanding work and enough to take a toll. The subject of stamina is an important element of these concerts, one I noted from last season.

This begs the question, what is the endurance level of this student/faculty mix at this point in the season? Judging from everything I heard they are certainly up to the task, they sound fabulous, and Effon, conducting with insight and the energy of a twenty year old, has gauged the chemistry and pulse of his musicians quite well. Ah! The bad news is a few clams fell out right then. Without naming names some folks in back fell off the board while approaching a cadence. It was the only flaw in an otherwise brilliant afternoon of quite extraordinary work on everyone's part. Except for that one little section the entire program was performed at very high and satisfying level of artistry.

Stoltzman is truly extraordinary. He played parts that would take our head off if we were having tea in your living room, and made it all look easy. Nothing appears to challenge him, or at least nothing was played that presented a challenge. During the "Riffs" part of the Bernstein he was hopping around, swinging with the orchestra parts and Bruce Murray's piano licks. I'm not sure the word "virtuoso" really applies to this guy – it doesn't convey enough of the whole picture of Stoltzman's artistry.

This was really a program of contrast: the pastoral calming effect of symphonic lyricism vs. jazzy and rambunctious gyrations.