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Orchestral Music Review

Brevard Philharmonic Orchestra Shines - Gresham Charms

March 26, 2006 - Brevard, NC:

This fourth program of the Brevard Philharmonic's first season was notable for two distinct features. First was the ensemble's significant improvement since the first concert last fall. Conductor and Artistic Director Emerson Head has forged a meeting point between the musicians' varying skill levels and the Porter Center's prickly acoustic properties with an increasingly balanced and controlled delivery yielding better results. The second was soprano Kathryn Gresham's local debut along with her blue "Diva" dress. Gresham is in her first year on the music faculty of Brevard College, and her appearance was widely anticipated. She sings well, looks great, and that dress is really stunning. But let's talk about that later.

Setting aside the vocal portion, this program featured six movements from Water Music of Handel, Eine kleine Nachtmusik of Mozart (more of this year's 250th BD celebration), the Symphony No. 8 ("Unfinished") of Franz Schubert, and the Marche Militairie Francaise of Saint-Saëns. Considering this scope of demands and balance of material there is quite a bit of meat and challenge in these works. To attempt them at any level is at once admirable while courting the Lord Of The Clams (musician-speak for wrong notes). While musing on this combination of forces, I noticed in the program notes a line about heritage, lineage, and purpose. This orchestra was brought forward from the same organization as the former Brevard Chamber Orchestra. Necessarily we compare the new with the old and find obvious differences. Yet we now learn that the current iteration is the "first real resident orchestra" for Brevard, and that the former BCO was considered professional. The BP now consists of over 50% residents from the community. The remaining players travel from farther away, and there are still a few pros. But the die is cast for an all-inclusive philharmonic experience that includes a greater presence in the public school system and even an appeal to retirement-age musicians to move here. Judging from the large audience on hand it seems they're off to a great start.

Kathryn Gresham's appearance was sparkling and professional, and she offered a nicely balanced selection of vocal works. Two arias from Don Giovanni of Mozart (again leaning on that 250th thing) were clinics of standard opera performance. She displayed wonderful articulation of line and scales, excellent pitch intonation, and a lyric timbre with a tightly focused center. Her leaps of interval never failed, and we might mention that she and that blue dress are easy on the eyes, too.

After intermission, she sang two show standards by Jerome Kern: "Why Do I Love You?," from Showboat, and "All The Things You Are." (The words for both are by Oscar Hammerstein.) I am usually opposed to "classical" singers programming pop or show tunes at a symphony concert because the songs are often sung with a degree of stiffness or rigid articulation that violates the expected lazy and relaxed atmosphere. You know, some melodies – like Peter DeRose's "Deep Purple" – recall the late hour, a smoky room, intimate glances, and whiskey on the table, and at an afternoon concert in a big hall with all the lights on, it is hard to recreate that feeling. Fortunately that wasn't necessary on this occasion. Gresham gave these Broadway tunes plenty of verve, remembrance, a great smile, and a huge A-flat right at the end to cap off the segment.

By drawing on local talent as featured artists, the BP is fulfilling that "resident" factor referred to earlier and embracing all the riches of its home region. This is smart, long-vision-type programming that should return rewards in the future. We should therefore use care when evaluating this group. The central questions form early: what is it, who does it, who leads it, and why? In fact, this is an amateur/enthusiast community group, led by a professional musician and supported by local business leaders who, together, espouse spirited values and are pursuing an aggressive agenda. Based on all of that, they're doing a pretty good job.

On the other hand, even at a base level we should expect certain standards to be respected, if for no other reason than for youth to observe. For example, when a guy walks on stage at intermission, yells at the sound people to "turn on the mic," then gives a sales pitch for contributions without introducing himself to the audience; I think we can agree there is room for a little coaching. The Porter Center's Scott Concert Hall isn't quite the same as a local church bingo session, and to treat it as such fosters the wrong image. Further, the pace of program events is plagued by long gaps waiting for the next thing to happen. It appears there is no production director to help manage the flow elements. These things require attention if the desired contributions are expected to materialize – or the organization's image is to exceed the current definition.

I have said before in these columns – and also to friends, in private – that Emerson Head and this organization will get it right. With each concert the collective ear is sharper, articulation is better, balance improves, and the public appeal of the programs increases. Amid a community of riches, here is one more gem in progress.