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Orchestral Music Review Print

Huge Orchestra, Refined Sound

July 21, 2006 - Brevard, NC:

As we've noted before, there are fewer and fewer big orchestras nowadays, especially in the hinterlands and backwaters. Yes, some of our major metropoli have 'em, but they don't tour very much ('cause it's so expensive), and one of the big bummers of the fall of the Soviet Union was that their large orchestras don't travel much anymore, either. As a result, many of us have become accustomed to what we have at hand, which for the most part is a band that requires no more than a couple of busses and a truck to haul it around. This means that in many cases the local orchestra – be it a regional ensemble or a community group or a town-&-gown band – isn't likely to be larger than say, 65, tops, with, at most 40 or so strings. And this in turn presents all kinds of challenges (involving ensemble, balance, sheen, color, etc.), quite beyond the fact that 65 players aren't enough to do justice to a lot of the repertoire our orchestras seem to want to present.

With all this in mind, then, we're keen to hear full-size symphony orchestras when we can do so. For the most part, colleges and universities can field such groups better than the pros, since the labor is less costly (or free...). Triangle residents can hear a big orchestra often enough in Chapel Hill, where the UNC Symphony Orchestra performs. And Tar Heels can also hear a magnificent large orchestra in Transylvania County this summer, where the Brevard Music Center's Repertory Symphony consists of 114 musicians, including 58 strings, according to the published roster.

On the evening of July 21, in the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium, this ensemble assembled on the stage for a concert. The program began with "The Star-Spangled Banner," permitting a substantial crowd of folks to rush home and add "Sang with the RSO" to their resumes. While we don't often review the National Anthem, it may be worth noting that this orchestra, whose members are, mostly, college students, impressed right off the bat with its rich, warm sound – and no wonder, given its nine violas, eleven cellos, and seven double basses!

The program then got underway with three orchestral excerpts – two dances and the famous March – from Berlioz's "dramatic legend," The Damnation of Faust. These were played in inverse order, with the "Menuet des follets" and "Ballet des Sylphes" preceding the "Marche Hongoise," perhaps better know as the "Hungarian" or "Rákóczy March." Now Berlioz was one of the greatest orchestrators in the history of the universe, but these are not all big, noisy crowd-pleasers. The orchestra, led by conductor Steven Smith (who earns his keep as Music Director of the Santa Fe Symphony and Chorus), made the colorful excerpts sound easy in the cool night air. The quiet parts were exquisite, the loud parts registered solidly without overpowering, and the overall impression conveyed by the two dance bits was that this orchestra and its director knew precisely what they were after – and obtained it. The March got off to a somewhat tepid start but kicked into high gear for the stem-winding finale, and the set was warmly received.

The evening's soloist, Chu-Fang Huang, is younger than some of the upper-level campers and head residents, but she's already well on her way to stardom in this racket, having captured first prize in the 2005 Cleveland International Piano Competition. She was educated at the Curtis and is pursing an advanced degree at Juilliard, and chances are we'll be hearing her again, for she had plenty to say in Beethoven's Second Concerto, which was distinctively different in several respects. She gave a serious and somewhat determined interpretation of the first movement, ably supported by Smith and Company. She's an active player, moving her arms and feet freely if not always in ways dictated by the music. Putting this another way, there was plenty of fluid motion to match the fluidity of her playing. She's a bit of a facial contortionist, too, in the manner of, say, André Watts; some may find her more enjoyable to listen to than to watch, but either way there is not likely to be much disappointment, if any. Her performance at the keyboard was matched by some stellar work from orchestral principals, most notably the woodwinds. The second movement seemed intensely slow and deliberate, but together the guest artist and the band made it work, thanks to everyone's admirable legato; at no point was there any sense of the loss of forward motion. The finale was taken at a redemptively healthy clip. The piano lines were consistently clear and clean, the orchestra never overpowered her, and everyone seemed to be having a delightful time with the music. The crowd clearly loved it, for all the right reasons. Look for this artist downstream!

The final work on the program was Stravinsky's Petrouchka, performed in its 1947 (and final) revision. This is great and famous music, it's very difficult and tricky, and it was an absolute delight to witness the student musicians giving it their all, never faltering or dropping a beat, much less having the train jump the tracks cataclysmically! Even some of the greatest maestri in history have made hash of this (and other) Stravinsky scores; perhaps these RSO artists are like other innocent and brave young people who do impossibly difficult things (like flying airplanes or driving warships) because they don't yet realize how hard they are. Anyway, this reading sparkled in the sizzle sections and glistened in the reflective spots, and at the end the applause went on and on as Smith invited player after player to rise and be recognized until he eventually had the whole bunch standing. It was that kind of night in Brevard.

For remaining concerts being offered by the Brevard Music Center during the 2006 Summer Institute and Festival, see our Western calendar.