Hall of Heroes: Birch Creek opens symphony series

Performers from Birch Creek’s opening symphony concert.

Sometimes the clouds of white hair filling a concert hall seem to presage the doom of classical music. But a visit to the Birch Creek Music Performance Center symphonic concert series is a reassuring experience. Gifted young musicians from the Midwest and beyond perform side by side with their adult mentors, creating an impressive professional sound. The audience includes not only the beaming parents and grandparents of the young performers, but also those who attend for no other reason than to enjoy good music.

Symphonic and chamber music is alive and well in the rustic concert hall. This summer, 51 students arrived on June 28 for the music school, enjoyed the novelty of a traditional barn dance in the concert barn, auditioned for their chairs on Monday, and began rehearsals for the opening concert on the following Thursday, “Hall of Heroes” featuring the music of Edvard Grieg, Edouard Lalo, William Walton, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Concertgoers at Birch Creek plan to arrive a half-hour early to enjoy chamber music performed by students under the summer air in the gazebo, and move inside for continued recitals until the main program begins. And then during intermission, students again play chamber music in the center’s Juniper Hall.

Conductor Brian Groner introduced each piece on the program. In his warm avuncular style, he combined a bit of music history with human interest to provide an appropriate setting for each selection.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite, incidental music in four movements composed for Henrik Ibsen’s play of that name, gently eased the audience into the classical program. “Morning Mood,” the familiar first movement, musically depicts a sunrise, the opening of which has been used for cartoons, TV commercials, and other non-concert purposes. The last movement, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (a troll, we are told), dramatically threatens with comic menace.

The opening concert was special in that the two featured student soloists were winners in the 2014 Burton Concerto Competition. Violist Kayla Cabrera, in her second year at Birch Creek, performed the Andante comodo movement from Walton’s 1929 Concert for Viola and Orchestra. Her elegant performance, her ability to make her instrument sing with a rich soulful sound during the plaintive piece, belied her youth.

Carissa McQuaid, a fifth-year violin student at Birch Creek, played the Allegro non troppo movement of Lalo’s Symponie Espagnole, exploring the dramatic potential of the piece with its Spanish gypsy flavor and rapid fire passages. How easy it was to forget that once again, a student was playing a demanding piece flawlessly from memory.

“Eroica,” Beethoven’s heroic Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, completed the program. Groner explained to the audience the revolutionary aspects of the piece, including the composer’s use of additional French horns for melodic purposes, and then playfully warned listeners of the symphony’s length, in particular the funeral march of the second movement, “A very long march!” he joked.

The symphony was a pleasure with its grand scope and big sound, enriched by the excellent acoustics of the concert barn. Especially enjoyable was the third movement, the Allegro vivace, with the novelty of the joyously braying horns, and the final Allegro molto, which offers a theme that reminds Groner of a coffee commercial, but, he said, is a testament to the genius of Beethoven in that he “makes something wonderful of it.”

However, the highlight of the evening was not a particular performance or selection, but rather the opportunity to see and hear an impressive gathering of gifted young people making music beyond their years. While the concert was entitled “Hall of Heroes,” taking its inspiration nominally from Beethoven’s heroic symphony, the real heroes of the evening were the 51 young people who took their places among professional musicians, and in particular, the two young women who had won the concerto competition. Those of us in the audience with white hair found ourselves misty-eyed from the experience.

This is the 40th year for Birch Creek. The Percussion and Steel Band series ran from June 18-27; the Symphony continues until July 11; and Jazz extends from July 15 to Aug. 8. For tickets and information, visit or call 920.868.3763.