“Is there a piano technician in the house?” asked Emma Tahmizian when she had to stop the beginning pyrotechnics of Ravel’s “La Valse” Friday night at Crooker Theater in Brunswick because something was wrong with the gleaming black Steinway concert grand – one of about 30 pianos lent by the company to the Bowdoin International Music Festival.

No one stood up, so Tahmizian looked inside and found a black tuning wedge, a piece of rubber that piano tuners use to damp the strings not being tuned. She began again, somewhat before the interruption, and completed a virtuoso performance of the Ravel transcription, plus her own interpolations, but it was not quite the same.

The tuning wedge (before the piano was moved) did not interfere with a superb rendition of the Beethoven Cello Sonata No. 43 in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1, by Steven Doane, cello, and Elinor Freer, piano, the first work on the Festival Friday program. The rapport between the two musicians was tangible, especially in the second movement, where Beethoven instigates a game of hide-and-seek with the themes, one of which seems to be a British sea chantey.

The highlight of the evening, however, was a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77, by Ilya Kaler and the Bowdoin festival orchestra under the direction of Lewis Kaplan. Kaler’s wife, Olga, a noted violin teacher and soloist, was concertmaster of the orchestra.

The opening of the concerto, with its lush cello part, is a test of any orchestra, and the listener would have been hard pressed to distinguish it from the same passage played by the Philadelphia Orchestra in its heyday. The festival orchestra is composed of students and faculty members who, except in rehearsal, have never performed together as an ensemble.

The entire performance, from the lengthy development of the first movement through the triumphant march of the finale, was what I would call “standard.” It did not venture far from tradition, was scrupulous in its attention to detail, and almost perfectly realized the composer’s intentions. As a result it was more satisfying, musically and emotionally, than some more “modern” interpretations and well deserved its rousing standing ovation, with cries of “bravissimo!”

Sometimes the soloist, with a student orchestra, has to carry the burden of the performance. That was not the case on Friday night. Kaler treated the orchestra members as colleagues, and his confidence was amply repaid. The rapt attention of the strings, during Kaler’s inspiring cadenzas, was worth the price of admission.

If I were reviewing a professional orchestra, I could still find little to criticize – perhaps a couple of bars where Brahms’ texture became a bit thin, like a branch stripped of its leaves, but these were so rare as to be insignificant. All in all, the concerto, one of my favorite works, was the best I have heard at the festival in many years.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at:

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