Student musicians now reach a remarkable level of performance at a young age. This was the major lesson that I took away from this year’s Jan & Beattie Wood Concerto Competition, whose winners performed Sunday afternoon with the Brevard Music Center Orchestra. When musicians aged 16 to 22 successfully present works like Hummel’s bassoon concerto, Ravel’s "Tzigane" and Liszt’s "Totentanz," I am glad I did not become a professional musician. I’d be replaced in a minute by these youngsters.
The orchestra under Ken Lam opened the concert with Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger, entirely appropriate since that opera concerns a musical competition. The orchestra’s brass section scintillated and strings soared. Concertmaster Jun Iwasaki showed real leadership, with body language reminding me of William Preucil, with whom Iwasaki has studied. For the remainder of the program, the orchestra settled into a sublimely collaborative role, helpful to the soloists and clearly enjoying their work. This year’s judges had not been able to winnow the field of talented youngsters to the usual four or five winners, so we had six performers, each playing a concerto movement from the “approved list” that BMC gives them as guidance each year.
Tatiana Stola, French horn, who is completing a degree at Boston University next year, played the third movement rondo from Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 11. Ms. Stola had a little excess adrenalin at the start, probably from waiting through the complete statement of the theme by the orchestra before the hornist enters. But she settled in and was the first of several soloists to earn an A for agility in solo passages.
Accompanied by strings, Sandra Bailey of Northwestern University played the first movement of the Concerto in F for Bassoon by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (WoO 23, written about 1805 but only discovered about 25 years ago). The work is notoriously difficult, and there is no record of it having been performed in Hummel’s lifetime. Ms. Bailey’s performance was not technically perfect – there were moments when the soloist and orchestra were not perfectly coordinated – but I listened with total admiration. I can give no higher praise for this young player’s amazing tone production than that she sounds like Klaus Thunemann playing the piece on YouTube.
Hui-Ying Ma, a student of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, concluded the first half of the concert with the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. Her unerring intonation and musical expressiveness made for a pleasing experience, and she musically understood Mendelssohn’s “Allegro molto appassionato” marking.
Victor Beyens is a student of William Preucil at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He opened the second half with the dramatic "Tzigane" by Maurice Ravel. Upon hearing him I understood why we had six winners. There had to be two violinists this year; it would have been a crime to pass up either Ms. Ma or Mr. Beyens. Here are two extremely promising violinists with histories that include Taiwan, Hong Kong, France and now study in the United States; Brevard Music Center has become truly international.
In the last 25 years, piccolo specialist Jan Gippo has developed new fingerings and new breathing methods for his chosen instrument, and has commissioned more than twenty new pieces. Among these is Lowell Liebermann’s Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra, Op. 60, which was ably performed by Kaitlin Barbo of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she is a college senior. This was my first hearing of the work, an Andante Comodo which begins in 5/4 meter with a haunting repetition of a descending harp motif, against which the piccolo enters in measure three. Timpani, percussion and celesta supplement a string accompaniment. It is a haunting work that should become a standard.
The concert ended with a good-looking tall young Texan romantic pianist. No, it wasn’t Van Cliburn reincarnated. It was J.T. Hassell, just 16 years old. He was recently recorded for NPR’s “From the Top,” where you can hear him the week of September 2. In this, his second summer at Brevard, Mr. Hassell chose the “Totentanz” of Franz Liszt, and brought power and a fierce attack to this dramatic work, with its glissandi and incessant statements of the Dies Irae theme. He also brought clarity to the slow contrapuntal sections and lyricism to his upper register statements. Finally, he brought down the house.
My only disappointment of the afternoon was that more people did not attend; the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium was only half filled for this, a spectacular student concert.