With New Shell, Brevard Festival Revivified At 80

Keith Lockhart conducts a Brevard Music Center orchestra in the open-sided Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium.
Keith Lockhart conducts a Brevard Music Center summer institute and festival orchestra in the open-sided
Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium.
By Paul Hyde

BREVARD, N.C. — The star of this year’s Brevard Music Center summer festival actually may be an inanimate object. A new $2.5 million acoustical shell will make its debut as the 80th season of concerts gets underway. The addition to the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium, Brevard’s main performance space, should significantly enhance the sound quality at orchestral concerts. About 80 events — encompassing jazz, opera, and orchestral and chamber music — are planned through Aug. 7 on the center’s 180-acre campus, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

The new acoustical shell addresses a longstanding problem: The orchestral sound at the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium often struck a listener as dry, deficient in resonance and power. Brass and percussion sections, though often forceful, lacked body and richness. Some subtleties got lost as well.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet is among major artists to appear.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet is among major artists to appear.

Previously, the orchestra’s sound often escaped into the fly space above or off to the sides. The acoustical shell, surrounding the orchestra on three sides and above, should result in a richer and more robust sound.

“I’ve always said I wish the audience could hear what I’m hearing,” said Keith Lockhart, the Boston Pops conductor who is also artistic director of the Brevard Music Center. “Problems on stage have made it difficult for members of the orchestra to hear each other, which is the absolutely most important thing in ensemble playing.”

Lockhart expects a much-improved sound, thanks to the new shell, which is adjustable for big concerts or more intimate chamber performances. “I predict that the audience will be blown away by the increased visceral impact of the magnificent sound made by our ensembles,” he said. “It will be a whole new experience for them.”

It’s a banner year in many ways for the Brevard Music Center, celebrating its 80th birthday in style. Among the headline-grabbing events will be the world premiere of American composer J. Mark Scearce’s Falling Angel on June 30 and July 2. Described as an “opera noir,” the story (based on the classic novel by William Hjortsberg) centers on a private investigator hired to find a man who has been missing since World War II. The opera was presented in a workshop version last year and will be fully staged this year.

The Brevard Music Center combination of scenic beauty and tradition of musical excellence attracts top names in classical music each summer.

Brevard Music Center has a verdant 180-acre campus in North Carolina.
Brevard Music Center has a verdant 180-acre campus in North Carolina.

Among the many soloists spotlighted with Brevard orchestras this year will be pianists Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Conrad Tao, violinist Robert McDuffie, countertenor David Daniels, and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck.

“We’ve been working on this for about three years and the dreams and goals are coming to fruition,” said Jason Posnock, Brevard’s director of artistic planning and education.

The summer festival opens June 24 with Thibaudet as soloist in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. Also on the program will be Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Ravel’s Bolero. Lockhart will conduct the Brevard Music Center Orchestra.

Lockhart closes the season eight weeks later with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, featuring an orchestra of about 70 and a chorus of 100.

Attended by about 30,000 patrons every year, the festival is both a concert series and an intensive training institute for some of the most talented young musicians in the world. The Brevard Center’s orchestras consist of 425 student musicians selected from more than 2,000 applicants throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, and South America. The students range in age from 14 to 29. About 30 students participate in the opera program.

Brevard Music Center students find outdoor spots for practice.
Brevard Music Center students find outdoor spots for practice.

Brevard students work with 70 professional musicians representing major orchestras and distinguished music schools. Students and professional musicians join together for Brevard’s big concerts, such as the opening program. Students, faculty, and staff all reside on the center’s sprawling, wooded campus.

Along with Falling Angel, operas in prospect this summer include Mozart’s The Magic Flute (July 14 and 16) and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (July 28 and 30), the latter featuring celebrated countertenor David Daniels as Oberon. “It’s one of his signature roles,” Posnock said.

Brevard’s young singers also will be spotlighted in other programs such as “Some Enchanted Evening: The Music of Rodgers and Hammerstein” (Aug. 4).  This year, Brevard also has revived its jazz institute for young musicians. An all-star faculty worked with 42 students. Jazz was a part of the Brevard Center many years ago but was discontinued. Officials hope to make the new jazz institute an annual part of the festival.

JoaAnn Valletta will conduct Dvořák Ninth.
JoaAnn Falletta will conduct Dvořák Ninth.

In another addition this year, four orchestral programs will celebrate the life and work of Antonin Dvořák, highlighting the Czech composer’s experiences in America. Critic and musicologist Joseph Horowitz is curating the series and will present a talk on July 30 as a part of a concert that also features Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, conducted by JoAnn Falletta. “We want to provide context into what was influencing Dvořák when he was here in America and in a sense inventing American classical music,” Posnock said.

The festival benefits from Lockhart’s musical connections. In addition to leading Brevard and being longtime conductor of the Boston Pops, he is principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra. He has raised the profile of a festival that already enjoyed wide acclaim.

The Brevard Music Center originated in 1936 as a summer music camp at North Carolina’s Davidson College. James Christian Pfohl, the center’s founder and first artistic director, moved his operation to Queens College in Charlotte for the summer of 1943, then to the current location in 1944. Pfohl added a festival of concerts at the end of the 1946 session. Over time the camp became an institute, and the festival came to run the entire summer season.

Matthias Bamert conducts two concerts.
Matthias Bamert conducts two concerts.

Student musicians play a wide array of repertoire with only a limited number of rehearsals. Their working conditions are intended to mirror those of professional classical musicians.

In addition to the programs above, some of the festival’s highlights include:

June 25: Grammy winner Amy Grant performs with Lockhart and the orchestra; June 26: Lockhart conducts Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and the Sibelius Violin Concerto (Emmanuel Tjeknavorian, violin); June 28: Lockhart conducts Béla Fleck in his Imposter Concerto; July 1: Ken Lam conducts Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (Joyce Yang, piano); July 2: Matthias Bamert conducts music of Mozart and Wagner; July 8: Bamert conducts Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (Inon Barnatan, piano); July 15: Lockhart conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Strauss’ Four Last Songs (Nicole Cabell, soprano); July 16: Robert Moody conducts Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and works of Mason Bates; July 22: Pianist Conrad Tao performs Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, David Effron conducting; July 29: JoAnn Falletta conducts Copland’s Symphony No. 3 and Bernstein’s Serenade (Robert McDuffie, violin).

For more information on 2016 concerts or to purchase tickets, visit www.brevardmusic.org or call 828-862-2130.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville (S.C.) News. Readers may follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.