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Brevard Music Center's Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium was the venue for this mid-afternoon sizzler by the Brevard Sinfonia under the direction of Keith Lockhart. The concertmaster was Ben Carson. The extreme heat has been a major part of the story here for the last three days, testing the mettle of players and listeners alike. This, however, did not deter the huge crowd that turned out to hear this college-division orchestra and Lockhart's first concert of the season. The music — not only familiar but construed in palatable, easy-to-digest chunks — seemed just right as a patriotic prelude to the Center's other July 4th offerings.
Those who have been following Maestro Lockhart's distinguished career know of his recent appointment as seventh Principal Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra in addition to his ongoing positions as Conductor of the Boston Pops, and, of course, Principal Conductor of the Brevard Music Center since 2007. He seems to be everywhere and very much in demand all over the world. And yet, Brevard is an important part of his history — he was once a student here and has family here — and his devotion to the educational mission of the institution is palpable. It must be thrilling to perform under his direction.
The program's first half consisted of works inspired by the American West — Aaron Copland's "Buckaroo Holiday" from Rodeo (1942) and Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite (1931). Part of the fun of attending an outdoor concert is to see what happens, as something always does. After the playing of the National Anthem, a downpour ensued as if on cue, generating a buzz in the audience which didn't immediately subside. To add to this excitement, a car-alarm horn went off a few minutes into the Copland, which turned out to be a comical, though unintended, rhythmic accompaniment to his syncopated and rhythmically-charged score. Noteworthy in this performance was the orchestra's energized forward momentum and unflagging energy. Well done!
The Grofé is an audience-pleaser for sure, and a pedagogical gem for young players. This suite of picturesque movements requires not only technical finesse but also a wide range of musical expressiveness, and this large orchestra (nearly 100 string players alone) successfully plumbed these artistic depths. The demands of the score are there from the very beginning of the "Sunrise" movement, where the faintest timpani roll and high string harmonics provide the sonic background to the relentlessly rising "sunrise" motive in the low winds. This opening gesture — one of expectation which later flowers into an expansive melody — was beautifully done. The "Painted Desert" similarly has a range of musical devices — melodic fragments, full-blown melodies, moments of stasis and those of motion — which were expertly realized. The clip-clopping "On the Trail" is always fun to hear, and the orchestra clearly had fun playing all the burro brayings. The two cadenzas which frame the movement — one for violin and one for celesta — were wonderfully executed. "Sunset" opens with the mesmerizing echoing of horns and a recalling of other movements' themes, and the grandiose final "Cloudburst" movement proved to be a solidly rendered musical affirmation of what some people sitting on the lawn had previously endured.
The second half opened with William Schuman's 1963 orchestration of Charles Ives's brilliantly idiosyncratic Variations on America. These, of course, are variations like no other. Meandering in unexpected ways with intentional "wrong" notes, the orchestra successfully pulled off the aesthetic of an "imperfect performance — Ives's style" perfectly. The lyric gem of the afternoon was the Lyric for Strings (1947) by George Walker, the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music (in 1996 for Lilacs). Originally the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1 composed in 1946, the work's hushed opening dynamic and generally quiet calm were in marked contrast to both the Ives and George Gershwin's An American in Paris which followed. In addition to the many fine solos through the latter, the orchestra also did a marvelous job of capturing both the vitality and jazzy swing of this American favorite.