Too often, we think of the Brevard Music Festival only as a vehicle for stellar performances by visiting superstars. It certainly is that. This season we have enjoyed cellist Cicely Parnas and pianists Norman Krieger and Yefim Bronfman as soloists with orchestra. We have heard chamber music professionally delivered by faculty members and guest artists. 

But the Brevard Music Festival is not just a venue for established professionals to play for an appreciative public. It was created as, and remains, a teaching festival whose serious business is auditioning prospective students, hiring gifted instructors, and mounting a seven-week educational program. For seven weeks young musicians go through the motions of a working professional musician. Each week a different orchestral program. Each week, juggling private lessons, practice, and rehearsals. They experience an intensity that exceeds even their conservatory experience.

Before David Effron took up the post of artistic director in 1997, Henry Janiec had established BMC as a high-quality regional teaching festival in opera and orchestral playing. When I interviewed Effron in the spring of 2001, he planned to make the festival into a national and international event and to expand the chamber music component. As he pointed out, there are a limited number of orchestral positions and many professional instrumentalists will find their performing career involves more often small ensembles. By the time Effron retired from BMC in 2007, the chamber music component was much strengthened. That progress has continued under artistic director Keith Lockhart and Jason Posnock, the director of artistic planning and educational programs.

String and wind students are now assigned to chamber music groups, and given a work selected by their faculty coach. They then practice parts, rehearse as an ensemble and receive coaching. Nine ensembles this year were selected to appear in a concert called the “Student Chamber Music Platform” on Tuesday in Searcy Hall (a small performance space seating fewer than 200).

Think of it. Students were put on stage just five weeks after they met for the first time. Talk about baptism under fire. It’s a wonder that they don’t require a psychiatric counselor as well as a faculty coach.

Professional string quartets rehearse together for years while the five quartets that appeared Tuesday had just a few weeks to create musical unity with strangers. There they were, playing the first movements of works by Brahms (Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2), Shostakovich (Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110) and Mendelssohn (Quartet in A minor, Op. 13 and Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2). The Mendelssohn Op. 13 opened the program and was repeated by another student group after intermission.

The string quartets all used minor keys and two used motifs. The emotional Shostakovich quartet, written at a tragic time in his life, uses a DSCH motif (D-Eb-C-B) – a German transliteration of the Russian “D. Schostakovich.” The A minor Mendelssohn (his first mature chamber piece written when the composer was eighteen) uses a three-note motif C#-B-D taken by the composer from his song “Ist es Wehr?” (“Is it true?”)

By luck of the draw (the accident of what programs were prepared by the selected groups), the wind players gave us happier fare, a lot more major keys. Antonín Dvořák wrote his String Quartet in F, Op. 96, while in Iowa, using American themes, and the work is known as his “American Quartet.” Claude Voirpy has transcribed this cheerful work for saxophone quartet, and the first movement was performed Tuesday, breaking up a succession of string quartets as though to say, “See? We don’t need your string instruments. We’ve got four saxes – soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. And we’ll play in a major key.” This was nice programming.

The final three ensembles were a classic brass quintet, a classic woodwind quintet and an uncommonly heard reed quintet. The brass quintet (two trumpets, trombone, French horn and tuba) played three works:  The Fanfare from La Péri, by Paul Dukas, the first movement of a quintet by Russian composer Victor Ewald and a Robert King transcription of a haunting anonymous work (ca. 1600 CE). The woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn) played Darius Milhaud’s seven-movement suite La Cheminée du Roi René, Op. 205 (“The Chimney of King René”). The reed quintet (oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon and bass clarinet) played four movements of Ton ter Doest’s Circusmuziek, described on the web in notes for a Hope College concert as “the most played original piece for reed quintet.”

So what are my comments as a critic about this rich and varied program? First of all, the thirty-nine musicians from eighteen states all demonstrated the high level of individual skill on their instruments that I am beginning to take for granted. Today’s young people play phenomenally well as soloists. Any deficiencies in Tuesday’s performances had to do with the musicians’ sense of ensemble, their unity as closely-coupled collaborators. For example, several first violinists seemed reluctant to take charge of their quartets. The head and shoulder motions and other body language that Donald Weilerstein or William Preucil might have used were mostly absent, and the ensembles were consequently not so tightly coupled as one might have hoped. These things will come with experience and time. Meanwhile, having prepared and performed a major work in a short period will boost the confidence of these young musicians.