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July 8 & 10, 2005. As homage to the 57th year of involvement by the National Federation of Music Clubs Southeastern Region, Brevard Music Center served up two orchestra concerts bathed in impressionistic hues and dedicated one of them to Hinda Honigman, past president of the NFMC and trustee of BMC.
Though themed in a way to separate the influences, both programs seemed as one continuous journey into that early 20th-century world of aural light and color. On Friday night (7/8) Steven Smith conducted the all-student Repertory Symphony Orchestra through a program titled "Spanish Tales," and on Sunday afternoon (7/10), David Effron led the BMC Orchestra (with faculty principals) in a program called "French Romantics," yet the two seemed like one long concert.
One hundred and twenty-four musicians took the stage of W-P Auditorium (as we will refer to it from now on) on Friday as Steven Smith opened with Escales or Ports of Call, a popular symphonic suite written by Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) in Paris during 1922. It conveys the atmospheres of Mediterranean ports – a kind of musical hop-scotch to Rome, Palermo, Tunis, Nefta, and Valencia. As an early work, it is leaner than the Flute Concerto and generally less adventurous. Clearly Ibert had broken free from previous Romantic influences and was exploring the future of his composing style.
Next was the Violin Concerto No. 2, in g minor, Op. 63, of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Guest soloist Christina Castelli graced the stage in a formal "International Edition Prokofiev Green" (actually turquoise-ish, but violinists will understand) evening backless strap and simply ripped this demanding work with big sound, seamless passagework and deep loyalty for melodic direction, most obvious during the second movement. Playing a 1709 Giovanni Grancino (Milan) instrument her entrances were superbly timed and provided clear definition to the orchestral phrase. Conductor Smith, a violinist, exactly shaped this work for maximum effect. Composed between 1932 and 1936 in Paris, it was commissioned by French violinist Robert Soetans and premiered in Madrid at the end of 1935, hence the "Spanish" connection. (After the concert, Castelli praised the caliber of BMC's professional curriculum and talented student core.)
After intermission came a Mexican contemporary of Chavez, Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) and his enticing "Sensemaya," an orchestral setting of a poem by Afro-Cuban revolutionary Nicolás Guillén about the killing of a tropical snake (go figure). The work is a rhythmic romp à la Stravinsky through vigorous passages of complex meters with melodies surrounded by dissonant yet tuneful counterpoint, and with a powerful fortissimo ending after noisy crescendos. The opening timpani glissando set us up for an unexpected ride. Conductor Smith used surgical precision to navigate the many time signature changes and leaps of phrase. This was an excellent reading of a score by a composer we don't often hear.
Finally came the glorious tone poem "Iberia" by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). One need not look much farther than this work truly to grasp the emerging influences and relationships among literature, painting, and music. Debussy often wrote the music first and then decided on titles, but that particular order doesn't matter here. The three movements roughly translated "In the streets and byways," "Fragrances of night," and "Morning of festival day." Debussy loved Spain, and though we don't hear that descending augmented second interval very often, he still gave satisfying imagery and a panorama of colorful chords. Therein we are deep into images of emotion and color. William Ludwig brilliantly played a wonderful bassoon part.
Smith coaxed the most from his orchestra this night. The preparation time was short and the material complex, but he is a veteran educator/conductor and the band never gave up – that's just one measure of the musical depth these students possess. Often the orchestra executed dynamic changes without a gesture from the conductor (wow, they can read the directions!). The brass was superb and in tune, and the solo by concertmaster Alice Ju was of professional caliber.
On Sunday afternoon, the Impressionist thread continued when David Effron opened the "French Romantics" concert with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Paul Dukas (1865-1935). You know this piece from Walt Disney's 1940 film Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse is chasing all those proliferating broomsticks. Remember? Right away Effron's artistic ear was obvious. This performance featured a separation of registers and instruments in a way we didn't hear on Friday. Both double and single reeds had significant parts, all played with distinction. Articulation and intonation were excellent and the rhythmic drive held our attention. Through masterful orchestration, we could see all those little broomsticks (or was it the cold medicine I took?).
Next came Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and a heavy dose of flute arpeggios, harp arpeggios, timpani and cymbal crashes, and lyric strings in the Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé. The genesis is in ballet and the French know a thing or two about combined aural and visual imagery. In three sections played without pause, the most obvious features are colorful chromatic adventures, large sweeping gestures of dramatic climax, and soft, far away pianissimo long-tones for reflection.
After intermission there was Debussy again and the final leap to defining Impressionism, the Trois Nocturnes for orchestra. Even Debussy himself said, "It is, in short, an experiment with different combinations that can be obtained from one color – like a study in gray." These "night pieces" evoke quite a bit, depending on your particular bias, but there is no questioning the craftsmanship. The second movement, "Fêtes," featured an exquisite trumpet line played pianissimo with mutes – it was played so softly and clearly that even Baltimore SO horn great Emerson Head was moved to praise it afterwards. The third movement, "Sirênes," included 17 women vocalizing on "Ah" for the siren part. Effron got the most from the orchestra and voices during these explorations of hue.
Last came "La Valse" by Ravel. The beginning low strings set an ominous mood, followed quickly by the signature waltz meter. Ravel had remarked this piece was tragic in nature, suggesting some had felt it "represented the end of the Second Empire." However while listening without regard for historical influences or notes, I didn't come away with that feeling at all. Instead, it seemed an exploration of tonality on the part of a composer using a dance form as structure, just as in the baroque. But I soon summoned the memory of Pinchas Steinberg and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna and his encore at the Auditorium of Palma de Mallorca in 1992. There the Viennese Waltz has elaborate augmentation of the anacrusis, extreme tenuto at top of the beat, and a makes-no-sense lazy meter that when heard cannot be denied as The Waltz. None of this exaggeration was present in the Ravel. So it's a different kind of valse. See? Sometimes history can get in the way.
Throughout the program, David Effron was ahead of the score and in full command of artistic ideas. He is a master of anticipation and of fully expressing to these students exactly what he wants. The impressionable students will benefit greatly from this experience. Their future performances of this literature will draw on these two indelible experiences. As listeners, we too have an excellent lesson and panoramic memory, to go!