Brevard Festival Basks In Bounty Of Diverse Bernstein

Keith Lockhart, artistic director of the Brevard Music Center summer festival, conducts an orchestral concert in the 2,200-seat Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. (Mike Belleme)
By Paul Hyde

BREVARD, N.C. – The Brevard Music Center summer festival, celebrating its 82nd year, went all out for Leonard Bernstein, whose 100th birthday everybody is celebrating.

In eight performances, musicians drawn from a pool of 500 talented high school and college students selected to participate in this year’s festival tackled a wide range of Bernstein’s works. Along with the more familiar orchestral works — the Divertimento, On the Waterfront Suite, the Second Symphony (“Age of Anxiety”) and Chichester Psalms (with the Greenville Chorale) — were airings of Bernstein’s chamber music.

Brevard is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. (Brevard Music Center)

In addition, critic and musicologist Joseph Horowitz returned to Brevard for lectures and audience discussions about Bernstein, whose actual centennial falls on Aug. 25. The Bernstein celebrations are worldwide in scope, with 2,000 performances planned on six continents, according to the Bernstein Estate.

Brevard wrapped up its summer with a Bernstein blow-out — what artistic director Keith Lockhart called the most ambitious undertaking in the festival’s long history: a performance of Mass.

By turns joyful, angry, hopeful, despairing, irreverent, comforting, and triumphant, Bernstein’s 1971 choral-theatrical Mass fuses jazz, rock, and classical music. It brought 300 vocalists and instrumentalists to the Whittington-Pfohl stage for a concert that will not soon be forgotten. Particularly memorable were episodes like the Offertory,  in which Lockhart leapt off the podium to join the chorus in clapping and dancing. Later, the gospel-like Agnus Dei had the entire string section (students and their teachers) up and dancing in jubilation.

Brevard artistic director Keith Lockhart: ‘Personable’ (Mike Belleme)

The personable Lockhart, who chatted (as he often does) with the audience before Mass, paraphrased a line from his Bernstein’s musical Candide, referring to Brevard as “the best of all possible music festivals.” At times that didn’t seem like an exaggeration at all.

The young musicians at this eight-week series of concerts embrace everything they do with skill, style and go-for-broke commitment.

This was a banner season for Brevard, nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The music institute offered about 80 performances — jazz, opera, and orchestral and chamber music — with roughly half of those events free. This season attracted 40,000 patrons, generating a record of $1.1 million in ticket sales.

A new record was set this summer in scholarships for student musicians: $1.4 million. Brevard draws its young instrumentalists and vocalists from across the U.S., Europe, and Asia for intensive instruction and a demanding slate of performances from early June to early August. Admission to the student program is not easy. This year’s select group of 500 was culled from 2,500 applicants.

Students range in age from 14 to 29. Some concerts feature the high school orchestra, others the college orchestra. A third orchestra combines college musicians and their Brevard teachers. The center boasts a faculty of 80 professional musicians and educators from the nation’s leading orchestras, universities, and conservatories. During the festival, students, faculty, and staff all reside on the center’s 180-acre wooded campus.

An acoustical shell, installed in 2016, has improved the sound. (Platt Architecture, PA)

Led mainly by Lockhart, who is also music director of the Boston Pops, and principal guest conductor JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, this summer’s student orchestras played an array of challenging works, old and new. Music by Holst, Brahms, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky could be found alongside scores by Americans, such as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Jennifer Higdon, Roberto Sierra, Benjamin Lees, and David Dzubay.

In an idyllic setting of lofty trees, Brevard is a restless music institute, always making plans and moving forward. Jazz and classical-guitar programs have been added in recent years. In 2016, a game-changing $2.5 million acoustical shell was installed on the stage of Brevard’s primary orchestral venue, the 2,200-seat Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. In 2020, a new 400-seat concert hall will provide more space for chamber music, solo recitals, lectures and classes.

Most of the orchestral musicians are students. (Brevard Music Center)

As most of the orchestral musicians are students, officials prefer that music writers not review individual performances in detail. What does bear close appraisal is the acoustical shell in the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium.

Before the shell was added, an orchestra’s sound often escaped into the fly space above or off to the sides. Now the sonic impression is richer and more robust. Strings have gained warmth and body, the woodwinds more clarity, and brass and percussion have acquired a satisfying oomph. Musical details emerge more readily amid orchestral textures. Musicians on opposite sides of the orchestra reportedly can hear each other better as well, boosting ensemble unity.

Brevard also has a knack for garnering first-tier soloists, attracted by the center’s scenic beauty and tradition of musical excellence. Soloists this year included pianist Olga Kern and violinists Robert McDuffie and Noah Bendix-Balgley. The Shanghai Quartet, meanwhile, offered two nights of Beethoven quartets.

Combine the festival’s youthful promise with such examples of eminent mastery, and Brevard becomes an oasis of thrilling music-making.

Paul Hyde, a veteran music critic, works at a southern university and writes often for the Greenville (SC) Journal and Anderson (SC) Observer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @PaulHyde7