World renowned pianist Misha Dichter was the big draw for this opening concert of the Brevard Philharmonic‘s 37th season. Conductor and Artistic Director Donald Portnoy programmed only two works for this concert held in Brevard College’s Porter Center – the Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 (“Romantic”) by Howard Hanson and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. The concert was sponsored by the Pickelsimer family to honor the memory of Ann Bryant Pickelsimer.

The program opened with a playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The audience was scarcely seated with the noise of settling down still audible in the hall when the conductor unfortunately launched too soon into the quiet opening notes of the Hanson Symphony. Though nicknamed “Romantic,” this work is rather modest in length, consisting of only three movements and lasting approximately 25 minutes. There is the impression that Hanson compressed his ideas in order to get through them all within the time he allotted, with big, intense moments constantly welling up from the entire orchestra, and lots of repetition of the same central themes within each movement. The orchestra marked well the multiple changes in mood and character within the first movement Adagio-Allegro moderato, with excellent playing by the principal horn which accompanied the main lyrical theme of this movement as well as the entire symphony. Hanson was unwilling to relinquish the intensity of the first movement, and so not long into the second movement Andante con tenerezza the heavy sonic scape is back, albeit at a slightly slower tempo. Here the main lyrical theme, heard previously in the first movement, took center stage and was given an appropriately expansive treatment. The third movement Allegro con brio opened with a scurrying motive played with down bows in the upper strings and a downwardly directed fanfare in the horns as its principal theme. The most striking moment in this energized movement was a Stravinskian section of dry pizzicato accompaniment of varied meters in the low strings against a march-like theme which echoed gloriously through the brass section.

The appearance of a soloist as famous as Misha Dichter is bound to generate not only excitement but also expectations for the highest standards of performance. To be sure, his career, now in its fifth decade, reflects a distinguished history of recordings, live performances of solo and chamber music, and contest winnings, most famously, his stellar performance at the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow when he was only 20. He himself has set the bar very high.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, for piano and orchestra, was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, with Leopold Stokowski conducting and the composer at the piano. It holds pride of place for not only being a stunning display piece, but also for being an audience favorite. It has been programmed multiple times within the last few years by area orchestras, including the Brevard Philharmonic. Dichter generally is an elegant player with crystalline tones and a classical adherence to clarity of line and structure. He is strong and facile, and adept at executing passagework at lightning speed. As such, I feel he blew past the many opportunities there were to savor the music’s moments, as though he were in too great a hurry to allot them time. Within 24 variations the piece affords ample spaces to change gears and evoke drastically different moods and tempi, but the forward momentum generated in this performance ran roughshod over them. For an encore Dichter played “Clair de lune,” the third movement from Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, and tossed it off so quickly and evenly I hardly recognized within it the hallmarks of Debussy’s style.

Another disappointment was the length of the program, barely an hour’s worth of music. With the Hanson Symphony concluded within 25 minutes, I felt the program was just getting going when it was time for intermission. If more music had been programmed for the first half, hearing only the Rachmaninoff (along with the soloist’s encore) after intermission would probably have been enough.

Note: The orchestra’s season continues on November 10. For details, click here.