A crowded house filled the half-century old auditorium with its new state-of-the-art shell for the penultimate concert of the 80th season of the Brevard Music Festival and the final student offering of the year, a rousing performance by the Brevard Sinfonia, the college-level orchestra, masterfully directed by resident conductor Ken Lam. Maestro Lam’s direction was impeccably clear, expressive, and remarkably free from excessive and meaningless gestures.

The program was largely Russian with the inclusion of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, whose Symphonic Variations (1939) opened the concert. This, the first piece of the 26-year old Polish composer’s professional life, is not a set of variations in the strict sense of Bach or Brahms but rather more of a metamorphosis of the theme first beautifully proposed by the solo flute. A captivating moment (4th variation?) pits the profundity of the contrabassoon in a Stravinsky/Dukas-esque moment against the solo violin and clarinet playing an impressive duet. A brass chorale heralds the end to this colorful and playfully dissonant work.

Virtuoso Korean-born pianist Min Kwon brought down the house as the soloist in the ever-popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Although a loosely structured set of 24 variations on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, the Rhapsody can be seen as a concerto in three movements, the first two being played without pause. The interweaving of the Latin hymn Dies Irae (Day of Wrath, the Judgment Day) with the Paganini theme at two moments in the work reminds us that Paganini was sometimes thought to have acquired his diabolic virtuosity due to a pact made with the devil!

Our soloist was all one could have wished for and more – impeccable technique in the virtuosic passages was matched by wistful and insightful timing in the more leisurely and poetic moments of the Rhapsody. The performance of “The Tune” (Variation 18, in D-flat) was beautifully wrought and brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience. The Brevard Music Center is indeed fortunate to have Kwon on its faculty!

A touching musical moment arose spontaneously (although someone had planned it meticulously) at the end of intermission as the audience was beginning to reassemble for the second half of the concert: a large group of brass players, including Hawaiian-shirted faculty members, crowded to the side of the stage where they played the final strains of “The Appian Way” from Respighi’s Pines of Rome, to the delight of the appreciative audience. After this charming diversion, we were treated to two ballet suites by Igor Stravinsky – the Divertimento from Le baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss) and the Firebird Suite (1911) augmented (because of faculty pressure) by the “Berceuse” (Lullaby) and Finale, presumably from the 1919 Suite.

It was a pleasure to hear the Divertimento so well played. Not often programmed, it is Stravinsky’s tribute to Tchaikovsky, using relatively unknown themes by Tchaikovsky as the starting point for this ballet commissioned by Ida Rubinstein for the Ballet Russes. The Divertimento uses four large excerpts from the ballet. This was the occasion for individual soloists in the Brevard Sinfonia to shine: Dominic D’Agostino, flute, Sam Frenduto, clarinet, Jacob Wiggins, horn, and the Concertmaster and principal cellist (whose names were not available from the Cerberus who guarded the stage door after the performance).

The Firebird, probably Stravinsky’s most popular and frequently played work (due to a quirk in the thorny copyright laws, which once allowed for purchase of the 1919 Firebird Suite but now, with the outrageous extension of copyright coverage, allow for rental only of all Stravinsky parts), was revised numerous times by the composer. In order to increase the possibility of performances of his music, Stravinsky omitted some longer passages not suited to the concert hall (e.g., music played while waiting for stage action to happen), making the 1911 Suite. Then, realizing that not all orchestras had four of each wind instrument, he created the 1919 Suite (with winds by twos), thereby increasing the possibilities of performances. Ever attentive to the profit margin, in 1945, since the then-prevailing copyright coverage was about to expire, Stravinsky modified many articulations, clarified some rhythms and added several movements not in the 1919 Suite (but in the 1911 version) and produced the 1945 Suite.

We were privileged to hear the 1911 Suite because it puts the largest orchestra possible on stage, about 100 musicians (out of some 140 musicians assigned to the Brevard Sinfonia). Apart from a harp glissando in the Finale of the 1919 Suite which was devastatingly loud (probably due to it being played simultaneously by three players instead of one), this was excellent, quasi-professional playing of the highest caliber. Brilliant and flashy woodwind playing and the lovely soft horn solo in the appended Finale, played by Nick Auer, were awesome. The only hint that these were not yet full-fledged and experienced professionals came in some pianissimo passages that were not as soft or as well balanced as they could have been. But the hall, with a soft background hum and slow breeze from the gigantic 10-bladed overhead fan, might not have permitted this anyway. The performance of this very long concert was greeted by a well deserved standing ovation and pealing rolls of thunderous applause.