Two steps forward; one step back. I have monitored the Brevard Philharmonic Orchestra since it expanded from the former Brevard Chamber Orchestra into a more ambitious enterprise, adopting its current name and intending to tackle the symphonic repertoire. This orchestra is a blend of seasoned professionals (often members of the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra or Asheville Symphony Orchestra) and devoted amateur musicians from Brevard and Transylvania County. As such, it requires different handling than a full professional orchestra.

Donald Portnoy began serving as Artistic Director and Conductor two years ago. This was a large step forward. A professor at the University of South Carolina, he has a fine reputation as a “teaching” conductor. He has a clear beat, gives prolific cues, and often subdivides measures in a way that professionals find unnecessary. He programs works that are appropriate for the orchestra’s ability. Under his tutelage, the orchestra made strides during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. He stretched his musicians without overwhelming them. In 2008-2009, I saw a more disciplined and focused orchestra with more confidence and fewer anxious moments. I sensed that Portnoy’s rehearsal influence was leading to rapid improvement for the Brevard Philharmonic Orchestra.

But last Sunday’s performance was a step back. Presumably because of financial anxiety, the number of musicians has been reduced to little more than chamber music size. The timpanist doubled on percussion, assisting the only dedicated percussion player. The string section was so slender that balance with the winds could not be maintained. Far from being a lush string sound, at times there was almost no string sound. Only the brass and woodwind sections were regulation size. The orchestra also performed after only three rehearsals. This ensemble needs four. They were under-rehearsed; the notes were there but the interpretation was primitive. If the orchestra’s size and rehearsal time are not restored, the progress that was made last year will atrophy. 

Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance in G Major, Op. 46 No. 8, opened the well-chosen program. This was followed by two Leroy Anderson favorites: “Jazz Pizzicato” and “Fiddle Faddle.” In “Jazz Pizzicato,” two string players chose to hold their unused bows in their right hands, standing out like a sore thumb against a background of the others who had laid down their bows. “Fiddle Faddle” was conducted by Brevard merchant John Taylor, who unfortunately gave an unclear downbeat. To their credit, the orchestra pulled itself out of an imminent “train wreck,” as musicians call a predicament where instrumentalists are not playing on the same beat.

Maestro Portnoy returned to the podium to lead Bob Lowden’s arrangement of music from Marvin Hamlisch’s Chorus Line. Soprano Stacy Stephens and lyric baritone Timothy Wilds, from Asheville Lyric Opera, then joined the orchestra for selections from The Sound of Music (Richard Rodgers, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett). This was a high point of the afternoon. An instrumental suite arranged by Calvin Custer of selections from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera concluded the first half.

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (arrangement by Bennett) and Hardiman’s The Lord of the Dance (arranged by Larry Moore) were the instrumental pieces that led off the second half of the program. Larry Black gave a distinguished trumpet solo in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in the Gershwin. The orchestra skillfully managed the accelerandos in the Hardiman. Ms. Stephens and Mr. Wilds returned to the stage to sing selections from My Fair Lady (Frederick Loewe, arranged by Bennett). “On the Street Where You Live” taxed Mr. Wilds’ upper register; this selection could have used a tenor voice instead of his pleasing baritone. 

In addition to being a superb arranger, Bob Lowden (1920-1999) was a prolific composer who served with the U.S. Army Band during World War II. In his “Armed Forces Salute” which ended this concert, Lowden makes a medley of “The Caisson Song” (U.S. Army), “Semper Paratus” (U.S. Coast Guard), the “Marines’ Hymn” (U.S. Marine Corps), “Wild Blue Yonder” (U.S. Air Force) and “Anchors Aweigh” (U.S. Navy). As is traditional, veterans of each armed force were asked to stand when their anthem was played. There were audience members standing for each armed service at this concert. A John Philip Sousa march provided an encore.