Brevard Philharmonic‘s third concert of the season under the direction of Donald Portnoy featured three B’s — the Bizet Symphony No. 1 in C and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58 with acclaimed soloist Phillip Bush. The concert in Brevard College’s Porter Center for the Performing Arts was sponsored by Arthur and Carole Schreiber in recognition of Joan Yarbrough’s leadership as president of the BPO from 2009-2011. Vance Reese was also recognized as conductor of the orchestra from 2001-2002.

The concert’s opener was the Bizet Symphony No. 1, a work completed in 1855 when the composer was only 17. Its sunny romantic disposition and familiar classical formal scheme proved to be congenial territory for this orchestra. The first movement’s opening theme was an energetic and soaring arpeggio which served as most of the developmental material. The second theme was a delightful and lyrical contrast, where the general balance of the various orchestral sections was finely moderated. The second movement Adagio featured the principal oboist in its poignant and familiar theme, with the other winds prominent later on. Although the fugue which occurs in the middle of the movement was a little ragged and somewhat lackluster, the strings more than compensated with their nicely shaped longer melodic lines. The third movement Scherzo: Allegro vivace embodies a sort of rustic charm with its drones in the low strings and yet another familiar theme. The Finale exhibited the prowess of the strings which were scurrying for most of the movement in moto perpetuo.

A native of Charlotte, Phillip Bush who now resides in Columbia, S.C. is a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore where he studied with Leon Fleisher. Bush has said that his career, which blossomed in New York, began a little unusually with his first connection to contemporary music, and then a backward working to the classic and romantic repertoire. His varied career has embraced chamber music, solo recitals and orchestral appearances. He is especially known for his championing of the works of contemporary composers. Bush has talked about his feeling of intimate connection with the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in particular, in that Fleisher had made an acclaimed recording of the work with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Furthermore, Fleisher had studied with Artur Schnabel, a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky, who studied with Czerny who had studied with Beethoven

Beethoven is always a challenge for any orchestra to play for many reasons, not the least of which is the intense concentration required from the conductor and every player to focus over lengthy periods of time to maintain the energies the composer sets in motion. In the first movement this focus was decidedly lacking as the tempo flagged repeatedly. I had the sense that Bush was forced to play the work slower than he would have liked, as several passages sounded just too slow and careful. This was rectified, however, in the fabulous and lengthy cadenza (he’d chosen one of the longer ones Beethoven had composed), where we were treated to not only more malleable and artistically gratifying playing but also to the composer’s improvisational style. The second movement is a dialogue, although it is essentially in two different languages, the martial and declamatory dotted rhythms of the orchestra and the utter tranquility of the piano’s chordal responses. The piano maintains its moments of stillness and the independence of its own voice in resisting the pull of the orchestra, and these periods of calm were some of the work’s most beautiful moments. This leads without pause into the final Rondo: Vivace where the orchestral playing was more cohesive and rhythmically compelling.

I always look forward to hearing the fourth Piano Concerto, as, for me, it is one of the most soul-filled compositions ever written. Bush is a great interpreter of the work and along with the Brevard Philharmonic Orchestra should take great pride in this performance.