The Porter Center is a nice venue for baroque music, even though so much treble is lost through the ceiling-less roof. The Daniel Jaeckel organ is in my opinion the finest instrument in the mountains. Into this space came I Solisti di Brevard, the selected baroque orchestra of the Brevard Music Summer Institute’s Young Artists Division. Make no mistake, this is one fine group of young players.

The concert began with an excruciating performance of Philipp Nicholai’s chorale “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” the only non-Bach work of the evening. The extreme stumbling in the rhythm between the voices suggests some neurological problem in the performer, not simple ineptitude. The performer, whose name I have suppressed, was not a Young Artist. That he should have received a mention on the program while the Young Artists were just mentioned once as orchestra personnel, seems counterintuitive to me.

The chorale was an introduction to Nicholai’s “Zion hört die Wächter singen,” from Cantata 140, a piece of superb singing and playing that gave hint of what lay ahead. The tenor soloist, Enrique Bernardo, has a clear, open, and unforced style. I would like for him to save his dramatic gestures for opera, but with eyes closed I couldn’t have asked for more. Bernardo’s German was excellent. The accompanying orchestra was just great, even though there was not a baroque instrument on stage save for the harpsichord, a magnificent, world-class, sun-kissed French double harpsichord by Hubbard and Broekman (generously lent by Robin and Bob Margeson). Finally, a professionally hand-made harpsichord, right here in River City; this is an instrument worthy of real music men.

After some re-arranging of personnel came the Violin Concerto in E major, S. 1042, with faculty violinist J. Patrick Rafferty as soloist. The entire violin and viola section, as well as Rafferty, played standing. And play they did, bright and crisp and in tune and in tempo. Faculty member Bruce Murray (harpsichord) had been a trifle plodding in the previous work, but got it all together nicely for the rest of the evening. Murray, a fine pianist, demonstrated that pianists can cross over and be fine harpsichordists too. The first movement demonstrated once again that the best recording in the world cannot give the same satisfaction as a live performance. Much of the credit for this of course goes to Rafferty, but the young people most competently covered his back. The low strings had some trifling difficulties with intonation at the beginning of the adagio, but triumphed over this rapidly and turned in a beautiful performance. For the final allegro, Rafferty and the orchestra gave a very musical interpretation throughout, deft and sure; they were cooking!

Red-headed Alicia Falcon, a true mezzo, came out to sing “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” from Cantata 54, in a shimmering green dress that was poetry with her hair. Why this diva styling to sing a very non-operatic church piece is not clear, but Falcon’s air was gracious and restrained. I think she was scared to death, but she had a presence as marvelous as her voice. Her treatment of the ornaments in her aria was both beautiful and precise. She certainly has nothing to be afraid of on stage. She’s a fine mezzo, and if not forced beyond her range, I predict we will hear good things about her again.

I Solisti took the fourth Brandenburg Concerto, S. 1049, one instrument to a part, beautifully demonstrating that this is a-plenty. Although Herr Schmieder does not mention a double bass, the added sonority was certainly rich — and flawlessly performed. The tempi of all three movements were, if not breathtaking, certainly more than adequate. The andante second movement opened with an absolutely lush, delicious viola solo, no joke. The program identified some performers very specifically; if this fine violist (one of three listed) had been identified more clearly I would give her more credit. The orchestra dove subito into the presto third movement. Jason Posnick (faculty), violin, played with young performers Elizabeth Min, and Weronika Balewski, Boehm flutes. Bach certainly knew how to write for winds (and for all the other instruments as well); Min and Balewski’s lovely playing made up to a great extent for the use of these inappropriate instruments (Bach asks for recorders).

After intermission, the evening took a downturn with the use of a much more inappropriate instrument, a Steinway grand piano. Why in the world, with a real harpsichord actually in place, would music director David Effron or pianist Sandra Wright Shen (faculty), opt to move out the harpsichord and move in a grand piano to play a harpsichord concerto? If Shen chooses to lay claim to all of Rachmaninov and Saint-Saëns, that’s understandable, but to lay waste to Bach in front of young people entrusted to her care is unacceptable. The Brevard Music Center is a teaching organization; this kind of teaching is clearly wrong! Harpsichord vs. piano is a long-running problem at BMC. Perhaps money may have once been part of the problem; it clearly was not the issue tonight.

The first movement of the Concerto in F minor, S. 1056, is dark enough without the added dullness of piano tone. Although the tempo was indeed allegro moderato, the musical result was ponderous and muddy because of the piano. In the largo second movement, the pizzicato strings’ song was overwhelmed by the percussive piano. It seemed pretty obvious to me that the orchestra was struggling to make sense out of what they had been asked to do.

Shen got all the notes right, and her command of pianism is clearly very great. She played from memory. It is to be hoped that the next time she is faced with this composition, she remembers that it was written for harpsichord. Thank heaven we don’t hear Chopin or Brahms on the harpsichord; some reciprocal professional understanding is needed, so that we no longer hear Bach on the piano. In 1959 Wallace Zuckerman brought out his “Z-box” or “Model-T” harpsichord kit so that there could be no excuse for not having a harpsichord; there is even less excuse for this artistic crime almost fifty years later, especially when such a fine and appropriate harpsichord is actually on the stage. (For 2005 CVNC rant on this same subject see here.)

To recap the evening, the Young Artists were excellent, off-the-scale good. Bernardo and Falcon sang delightfully. Posnick, Rafferty, and Margaret Baldridge (faculty violin) turned in very musical performances. And in the final concerto, the orchestra was from Venus and Shen and her piano from Mars. Both are acceptable in their own way, but tonight the piano was inappropriate.