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With Brevard's highly promoted orchestral concerts featuring guest artists who are world-class musicians, it is easy to forget that the Brevard Music Festival is first and foremost a teaching festival. The students ensembles perform in a rapid-fire succession of concerts after minimal rehearsal time, just as they will later in their professional careers. They are given private lessons and master classes by talented teachers drawn from the faculty of distinguished conservatories and universities. Teaching is the focus.
In addition to being able teachers, the faculty members are skilled performers. Chamber music programs given by groups of faculty are sprinkled throughout the seven weeks of the festival. Four such concerts are listed in this year's program as "Brevard Music Center Artist Faculty" concerts and the second of these, "BMC Artist Faculty II," was presented Wednesday evening in the Ingram Auditorium of Brevard College. (The Porter Center is tied up this week with the world premiere of J. Mark Scearce's opera "Falling Angel.")
BMC students came en masse to hear their teachers perform. I estimate that 60% or more of the audience were students. The students, along with the other attendees, were treated to three works, only one of which might be considered standard repertoire.
First came a sonata for trombone and piano written in 1973 by Croatian composer Stjepan Šulek on commission by the International Trombone Association. Subtitled "Vox Gabrieli," it required virtuoso skills by both David Jackson on trombone and Deloise Lima on piano. Yet the virtuosity is not in the service of a flashy showpiece; instead it yields an introspective experience in which the trombone is often lyrical while the piano is often stormy. Šulek's compositional style is perhaps old-fashioned for the late 20th century, but the result is an engrossing work. Jackson and Lima made a good case for it.
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) is known primarily as an opera composer. After laboring in obscurity for decades, he finally came to international attention with Jenůfa (1904), written (as were his many other operas) in a naturalistic style with a prose libretto rather than poetry. Two notable operas, The Cunning Little Vixen (1924) and The Makropoulos Affair (1926), were written when Janáček was in his seventies.
Also in his seventies Janáček composed Mládí (Youth), a wind sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, bassoon and bass clarinet. Wednesday's performance featured faculty members Marianne Gedigian, Eric Ohlsson, Steve Cohen, Elizabeth Freimuth, William Ludwig and guest artist Daniel Gilbert (bass clarinet). The Suite is composed in a style reminiscent of Janáček's operatic writing, in which the musical phrasing reflects the rhythm of speech, more specifically the rhythm of the Moravian dialect of the Czech language. Janáček was a student of Czech folk music, in parallel with the studies of Hungarian folk music by Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, and that tradition is evident also in this suite. The four movements include an opening Allegro, a plaintive Andante Sostenuto in which the bassoon and bass clarinet starred, a Vivace that alternated between rhythmic and lyrical sections in an ABABA structure (with piccolo in the lively rhythmic sections and flute in the lyrical passages) and a final Allegro Animato that once again resembled speech. The performance elicited a storm of applause.
After intermission, a single work was presented, the Piano Trio in A minor of Maurice Ravel. The valuable program notes of Siegwart Reichwald explained Ravel's use of Basque rhythms (3+2+3), a fact that I had not previously appreciated. It pays to read the program notes at Brevard. Once again, as with Janáček, the composer in his music was citing influences from his personal ethnic background. The trio was expertly performed by Craig Nies (piano), Corinne Stillwell (violin) and Benjamin Karp (cello). If there was a standout performer, it would be Stillwell, whose violin displayed tonal colorations that intelligently moved from fiery to mellow in a way that Ravel would have admired.
Throughout the four movements, we experienced the ideal melding of three instruments. There were three heads and six hands, but they operated as one entity. The students in the audience had seen three exemplary performances of music for chamber ensembles, and their applause told me that they appreciated the lesson.