A three-act musical drama is unfolding at the Brevard Music Center. This drama has music by Tchaikovsky, choreography by Principal Conductor Keith Lockhart, and will ultimately use the services of all three of the Center’s orchestras. The Transylvania Symphony Orchestra presented Act One (Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony) on Friday, July 10. These high school age performers gained a glowing review as they demonstrated a rapport with the music of the major Russian symphonist of the nineteenth century. On Saturday, the university and conservatory students of the Brevard Sinfonia presented Act Two (Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony). Next Sunday, July 26, the Brevard Music Center Orchestra (faculty and students) will finish with Act Three (Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony) to complete a cycle of the three most important symphonies in the Tchaikovsky canon.
Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella was the opening number on the program. This adaptation of the 1920 ballet score is a puckish offering much less serious than the composer’s earlier groundbreaking scores for Serge Diaghilev. Principal string players are all featured at moments, and the bassoon appears frequently as a buffoon, sometimes accompanied by a raucous trombone. The double bass solo was dispatched with elan.
The Sinfonia has a less full string sound than the BMC Orchestra’s string section provides. A little thinness worked well in the astringent passages of Pulcinella, but less well in the Tchaikovsky, where I would have welcomed more string power at some moments. In the Andante Cantabile of the Tchaikovsky, there were moments when Lockhart was absorbed with solo instruments (such as the solo violin and oboe) and some string section members were not quite locked together with their fellows. More precision would have helped. But other than these fleeting desiderata, I found the program to be an admirable evening of music.
One of the challenges of performing Tchaikovsky is to allow the strong emotional content to speak for itself. Lesser conductors and lesser orchestras can get carried away by the overt sentimentality of the orchestration, push or pull the tempi and over-emphasize the lush orchestration. Lockhart has the correct concept – that the emotion is already there in the writing, along with strong formal structures that should not be masked by overplaying – and he had schooled his fine student orchestra to perform with sensitivity but discipline. Conducting without a baton, Lockhart wheeled to face each section of the orchestra as it came to prominence in the score, providing meticulous guidance to his instrumentalists.
The challenge for brass players is always present in Tchaikovsky’s writing. The principal French horn has one of the all-time great orchestral solo passages in the Andante Cantabile second movement of the Fifth Symphony, and this solo was dispatched beautifully in this performance. The work repeatedly calls upon the complete brass choir to blend like a chamber group, sometimes in quiet reflection and sometimes in urgent appeals. The brass section of the Sinfonia rose to the challenge, maintaining clarity and unity always. There was a bare minimum of burbles, and these were rapidly suppressed.
Beginning with the low-register clarinets and eloquent bassoon of the opening Andante, it was clear we were being treated to some of the best of our future professional orchestral reed players. After that start and the ensuing swath of string sound all the way to the shaped phrases of the ecstatic finish, the orchestra delivered a fine performance.