It was precisely six years since I’d last sampled a symphonic performance at the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium toward the end of the annual seven-week revels at the Brevard Music Center. On that occasion, the prospect of hearing Ben Heppner drew me up into the mountains – and I returned a week later for a performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. (Amazingly, they’re doing Marriage of Figaro once again next weekend, so don’t expect me back!) During the intervening years, Eastern Music Festival has drawn me to Greensboro, where the guest lineups are starrier, the summer faculty form an orchestra as well as chamber groups, and the students perform at a level more on a par with Spoleto’s youth ensemble. As the music festival moves toward the end of Keith Lockhart’s third season as artistic director, 2010 seemed like a particularly propitious year for catching up with Brevard and seeing what impact the Music Center’s distinguished alum has had on the festival. So I sampled a nicely balanced program of Haydn’s “Schoolmaster” Symphony No. 55, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, and Ibert’s Flute Concerto under the baton of Matthias Bamert with guest soloist Marianne Gedigan.
Bamert’s was the perfect presence at the podium for the Haydn, stern and alert. The simplicities of Symphony No. 55 are easy enough to negotiate individually, but they will devilishly expose the imprecision of a violin section playing out-of-sync. When the strings bobbled the triplets early in the opening Allegro di molto, Bamert’s unperturbed look almost succeeded in making the crooked seem straight, and the strict manner of his timekeeping in the ensuing Adagio left no doubt where the work’s “Schoolmaster” nickname came from. The Menuetto was distinguished by a fine obbligato from the Brevard Sinfonia’s principal cellist, but the Presto finale would have benefited from a more robust dynamic range. Onstage forces were not severely restricted, as you sometimes see when orchestras turn to Mozart and Haydn, and a modest acoustic shell behind the brass and percussion projected a pleasing sound into the Whittington-Pfohl, gently aided by amplification.
Still there was a dramatic influx of musicians for the Ibert before Gedigan joined Bamert downstage. Worries that a larger ensemble would be more unruly than the Haydn corps were quickly laid to rest as the Sinfonia rose to the occasion, playing as grandly for this guest soloist as a previous generation had played for Heppner. Their zeal was easy enough to explain, for almost instantly the soloist and the concerto both proclaimed themselves worthy of wider audiences, and my enthusiasm only grew as Ibert’s three movements unfolded. The opening Allegro released into a luscious floating solo from Gedigan, prodded into liveliness by the violins, and the lovely Andante bore the additional flavorings of cameos from the principal oboe, clarinet, and the concertmaster. With its Disney-ish jollity at the start, only the concluding Allegro scherzando threatened to disappoint, but it soon retreats into a forlorn cadenza that is the antithesis of a scherzo, once again cajoled out of its melancholy by Gedigan’s orchestral partner. So the concluding movement was a satisfying meal all by itself.
Even more artillery marched onstage after intermission as darkness fell on Brevard, and Bamert prepared to lead his own distillation of the three suites Prokofiev extracted for concert performance from his Romeo and Juliet ballet score. If sound waves leak out of the relatively small open sides of the mammoth tent-like Whittington-Pfohl superstructure, it is axiomatic that outside sounds seep in. In bucolic Brevard, far from factories, railroads, or airports, this wouldn’t figure to be a problem – and it isn’t until nightfall, when battalions of cicadas insist on having their say. So the strife between Montagues and Capulets had a musical counterpart in the rivalry between the orchestra and the insect brigades, with the cicadas totally in eclipse – except between segments of the suite and during the most exquisite pianissimo passages.
The familiar “Montagues and Capulets” opening had none of these, but there were vernal, contemplative, and solemn interludes down the road as we moved onward to the “Aubade” and later to “Romeo at Juliet’s Before Parting” and “Romeo at the Grave of Juliet.” So yes, vying with nature marred some of the Sinfonia’s best efforts – and no doubt WDAV-FM’s broadcast of the concert – but overall, the Prokofiev was the orchestra’s finest hour. Individual instrumentalists shone on celesta, clarinet, flute, saxophone, French horn, bassoon, xylophone, wood blocks, viola, oboe, tuba, and piccolo in this magnificently resourceful panoply of sound. Brass were a tad smudgy at the start but tightened admirably for the rest of the 11 segments selected by Bamert. Three timpanists thundered impressively from the outset, but the battery of seven French horns commemorating the “Death of Tybalt” were even more thrilling.