Review: Brevard Center kicks off “music in the mountains” summer festival

The Brevard Music Center is, first and foremost, an intensive summer training program for serious high school and college-age musicians. But its concerts and operas have also become an inviting summer festival for classical music lovers, and it’s less than three hours from Atlanta. 

Either as a side excursion or a more intensive destination trip, it offers a “music in the mountains” setting not unlike that of Aspen or Tanglewood. In the five days leading up to the Fourth of July, there was one major event each day, a typical schedule during the six-week festival season, plus a smattering of smaller, free events. 

Orchestra Concerts

The flagship Brevard Music Center Orchestra, one of six orchestral ensembles, includes a mix of faculty and college students. At a concert on June 30, its program included Bartók’s demanding Concerto for Orchestra as well as two lesser known works: Gabriella Lena Frank’s Three Latin American Dances and Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. 

Keith Lockhart, artistic director here since 2007, led a solid performance. Norman Krieger, who chairs the piano department at Indiana University and serves on Brevard’s artist faculty, was piano soloist in the de Falla work. 

Later, I spoke with this orchestra’s concertmaster, Charles Mutter — associate leader of the BBC Concert Orchestra — who said of the students playing behind him: “I feel this amazing energy in the back of my head; they are so serious.” This is an orchestra that plays at the level of major conservatory ensembles. 

A concert by the Brevard Sinfonia, comprised of college students led by Yue Bao, assistant conductor of the Houston Symphony, was featured on July 1. First came a charged, festive work, An American Port of Call, written in 1985 by Adolphus Hailstork. The orchestra was then joined by violinist Chad Hoopes and violist Matthew Lippman for Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, essentially a concerto for the two soloists, each of whom ranks among the finest touring musicians anywhere. 

This work, a relative rarity, serves as a dazzling showpiece — with the violin and viola competing — but it’s also sensuous and quite beautiful. For an encore, the pair performed Johan Halverson’s Passacaglia for Violin and Viola, an exuberant, virtuosic fireworks display, just right for the Fourth of July weekend. After intermission, we heard Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a popular favorite. 

The Brevard Music Center’s student orchestra in rehearsal. (Photo by Denman Bennett)

For the Sunday matinee on July 2, we got the Brevard Concert Orchestra, for students in the high school program, with Ken Lam conducting. Lam is director of orchestra studies and resident conductor at Juilliard. This was the first concert for the high school students, who had only been on campus a week. They were joined by Donna Lee, a concert pianist who is on faculty here, for Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, a gorgeous work that for some reason doesn’t get the attention it deserves. 

With Lee as soloist, we got a jazzy, dramatic performance, and it was possible to understand why Gershwin considered this “in many respects . . . the best thing I’ve written.” This program also included Hanson’s Symphony No. 2

Each of the symphonic concerts featured a large orchestra (pared down for the Mozart piece) and benefited from the surprisingly good acoustics of the Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium, an open sided 1,800-seat hall nestled in the mountains. During the pauses in the evening concerts, a chorus of crickets — its intonation appalling — made itself heard. Fireflies are abundant, along with songbirds, geese and, later on, bullfrogs. 

Chamber Concerts and Recitals

My favorite experience here was a faculty concert on July 1, held in the gorgeous new Parker Concert Hall, which seats just 400 and is acoustically superb. That concert featured a Bach flute sonata transposed for tuba and piano, with Aubrey Foard as an unbelievably nimble tuba player, accompanied by Deloise Lima on piano. 

Violist Juliet White-Smith, with Lima, performed a lovely viola/piano work by Ulysses Kay, an African American composer who died in 1995. In the discussion, White-Smith explained that she’d discovered one of Kay’s viola works in a library and tracked him down, ultimately championing and performing that one as well as this work. 

Another excellent pianist, Yu-Lien The, played a set of pieces by three women composers. She then returned with saxophonist Henning Schröder to perform a wonderfully original piece, Hot-Sonate for Alto Saxophone and Piano, written by German composer Erwin Schulhoff in 1930 before was killed by the Nazis. 

Another Parker Hall event, on July 3, featured a guest ensemble. Seraph Brass, a five-member female brass ensemble, played a variety of virtuosic short works — some excerpts and transcripts and a lot of new pieces. It was a lively night. 

The new 400-seat Parker Concert Hall is both rustic and acoustically superb.


This season, the opera program opened on June 29 with a fully staged production of La Traviata at the Porter Center, a splendid 550-seat theater across town on the Brevard College campus. The hall’s size and acoustics are ideally suited to young voices, and the smallish orchestra (21 musicians, comprised of faculty and students from the college program) gave the evening a chamber intimacy. Opera program students — college and graduate voice students as well as recent graduates — sang all roles and served as the chorus. Dean Anthony, who heads the opera program here, was the stage director. His production featured a simple, very traditional unit set with movable curved walls and elegant period costumes. 

Kira Kaplan showed promise as Violetta, with a light, flexible coloratura soprano voice, and was best in the tender moments. As Alfredo, tenor Aaron Smith sang confidently, his voice strong and nicely colored, showing a full range of emotion. 

Soprano Cayenne Teeter was a charming Flora, and guest artist Thaddeus Ennen, a Brevard alumnus, was a solid Germont. Others in the 11-member cast sang ably, and the large chorus was superb. Veteran conductor Steven White was an energetic and supportive partner. 

The opera program will continue with Britten’s chamber opera The Turn of the Screw, based on the Henry James novella, with performances July 13 and 15, and Sondheim’s music theater work Into the Woods on July 27 and 29. 

About Brevard Music Center

Brevard’s incoming president is Jason Posnock, a highly regarded violinist who has taught here for 17 years and served for 15 years as the center’s vice president. Posnock, who takes over from Mark Weinstein, described Brevard this way: “We’re an educational institution that has a festival as an organic outgrowth of all that we’re doing. Everything we do is for the students; the audience is incidental. But my hope is that we can get to the point that people no longer say Brevard is the best-kept secret in Western North Carolina.” 

I spoke with a number of the students, including two from Atlanta. Caiden Follmer is a rising senior at Hillgrove High School in Marietta and a French horn player. “My dream is to play in an orchestra,” he said. “I love my Mahler and my Beethoven.” Asked about the experience here, he said, “The seriousness and the competitiveness is very motivating; everyone wants to be good. It makes you strive for more. But it’s also really friendly. I like that a lot.” 

Caiden has been accepted into the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra for next year. 

Violinist Jan Mráček works with a student. (Photo by Denman Bennett)

Hazel Patti is a rising junior at Decatur High School and a bassist. While she doesn’t plan a career in music, she said she always wants music to be a part of her life. Hazel played with the ASO’s youth symphony for the past two years and next year will join the Emory Youth Symphony Orchestra. About the Brevard experience, she said, “The music here is awesome. You get to play and practice with your friends. I like the free structure. And I love our conductor (Ken Lam).”

Every student I spoke with mentioned the quality of the instructors. And with more than 80 artist faculty members for the 500 or so students in the core programs, students get a lot of interaction. In addition to the renowned high school and college orchestra programs, the core programs include piano, composition, opera and high school voice. In recent years, other programs have been added: jazz, classical guitar, high school music theater, bluegrass guitar and a banjo camp, bringing the total student population to more than 700. 

Competition is intense. About 2,500 students start the application process each year, resulting in 1,600 fully completed applications, with video or audio performance links. The faculty and admissions director then narrow down the applicants and offer admission, often with scholarships. This year, there was $1.5 million in scholarships, the largest component in the school’s $6 million+ budget. 

In order to increase participation by African American and Latinx students, the school offers opportunity scholarships in addition to the regular scholarship program. Last season, 19% of the students, 18% of the artist faculty and 38% of the guest artists were people of color. 

Still to Come

This season runs until August 6, with concerts each day. Seats are still available for pretty much everything. In addition to the opera programs, upcoming highlights include a July 14 concert featuring Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Beethoven’s Symphony No.1. Celebrated pianist Jeremy Denk will perform Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Brevard Sinfonia on July 21. The following day, the Brevard Music Center Orchestra will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 1

Superstar Audra McDonald will present an evening of Broadway classics with full orchestra on July 26. Students from the Opera Program will present An Evening of George Gershwin on August 3. And the season finale on August 6 will feature the Verdi Requiem

Before You Go

When planning a trip, consult the Brevard Music website and especially the link to the Overture program guide, which has complete information regarding the various concerts. The performance schedule on page 33 shows the faculty concerts, student piano recitals, Monday concerts at the Transylvania County Library downtown and other smaller events, most of which are free, in addition to the symphonic concerts and operas. 

The Brevard campus is open to the public and is a great place to walk around during the day, when you can wander into a rehearsal at the auditorium — always free.

There are many hotel and rental options in Brevard and nearby communities such as Asheville and Highlands, and there’s a lot to do. The area is awash with breweries — important to know, as H. L. Mencken once wrote: “It is well known to every musicologist that the divine music of old Johann Sebastian cannot be digested without the aid of its natural solvent.”


James L. Paulk is a longtime classical music writer for such publications as ArtsATL and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is also a former state senator.

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