Musicologist Siegwart Reichwald delivered a half-hour "symphony talk" before the Brevard Music Festival concert began on July 6. Reichwald, who wrote program notes for most of the festival's major concerts, suggested that the program for the evening (Berlioz, Schumann, and Brahms) had a theme – the aesthetics of romanticism – and that a unifying one-word descriptor would be joy. When Felix Mendelssohn (not on this program but a specialty of Reichwald) was asked why he wrote Songs without Words, Mendelssohn replied that a larger range of emotion could be elicited by music than by words. We were sent out prepared for an evening of pure 19th-century romanticism.
Matthias Bamert conducted the Brevard Music Center Orchestra without a score, except for the evening's concerto. His style might be considered "overconducting" (too many cues, too much detail) for a major professional symphony orchestra but is likely useful for the BMC Orchestra, two-thirds of whose musicians are conservatory students. For many of these, this was likely a first encounter with some of the repertory, and a little detailed guidance was probably helpful. Jonathan Carney served as concertmaster; other faculty members were sprinkled through the string sections and constituted a majority of the wind and brass sections.
The first work on the program was Hector Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture, Op. 9. The sudden changes in this overture as it moves from episode to episode were delivered with clarity and precision. The prominent English horn solo was beautifully delivered by Emily Brebach, whose winters are spent with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and teaching at Emory University.
The concerto for the evening was Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54. A regular feature of each Brevard Music Center season is the appearance of a professional soloist only slightly older than the students. In this case, pianist 28-year-old Yekwon Sunwoo, who won the gold medal at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2017, appeared by arrangement with the Cliburn. His articulation and his melding with the orchestra were exemplary, although I felt that Bamert in the first movement had a more rigid tempo in mind, whereas Sunwoo preferred a little tasteful rubato. After all, the movement is marked Allegro affettuoso, which doesn't sound very rigid. The pianist compromised: when there were short solo passages, he put in his hints of rubato; when tightly interacting with the orchestra, he hewed the line. The cellos are let loose in the introspective Intermezzo, and then in the Allegro Vivace finale, the soloist promulgates the joy that Reichwald had referred to in his commentary. This is Schumann at his best, composing joyously a work for his virtuoso wife Clara Wieck Schumann to perform.
The first half of the program was grounded in the first generation of romantic European music, while the second half moved on to the next generation, specifically Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73. Brahms had painstakingly composed his first symphony over at least fourteen years, with the fear that he would be judged in the context of Beethoven's oeuvre. By contrast, the second symphony was written over a single summer in the mountains. It was his release after years of tension. This symphony may be the least substantial of the four Brahms wrote, but the joy he felt after having successfully introduced Symphony No. 1 makes Symphony No. 2 a delight.
Bamert mounted the podium, and I immediately knew that we had a difference of opinion. With a tempo too slow, Bamert made the first movement ominous rather than joyous. The Adagio non troppo that followed was too pompous, too self-important. While the third movement, Allegretto grazioso, was fine judged on its own, it didn't have the effect on me that it usually does as a quiet interlude between two joys – the first joy had been missing. In contrast, the fourth movement, Allegro con spirito, was much more satisfying. This represented Brahms as I understand him. I hasten to add that the players of the BMC Orchestra distinguished themselves throughout the symphony. They dutifully followed Bamert's interpretative directions and in the fourth movement showed themselves to be released and joyous. We would all agree that it ended well.
The festival continues through August 5. For details, see our calendar.