High art and low blows

Don’t let this happen to you: You’re sitting on your front porch, nursing your favorite cold beverage and admiring that freshly mowed lawn — when, suddenly, you remember that your real work is far from done. That is to say, summer’s almost here, and you’ve yet to realize your promise to your significant other that this year, you would finally do something different in the way of hot-weather entertainment.

Now here it is mid-June, and your only accomplishment to date is winning the war against the dandelions.

Well, rest easy, because the Brevard Music Center is looking out for you this year. Over there, summer begins a few days early — June 17, to be exact, the kick-off for the Center’s annual music festival, which spans seven weeks and multiple genres. The opening gala stars Cornell Gunter’s Coasters, Drifters and Platters — featuring members of those famous bygone groups — who’ll offer such ’50s classics as “Only You,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “The Great Pretender.”

But it hardly stops there: Officially starting on Thursday, June 22 and running through Sunday, Aug. 6, the Brevard Music Festival’s 2000 season will be distinguished by such acts and events as the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble; the pops concert “A Night at the Movies” (directed by David Effron); the BMC Festival Orchestra supporting operatic superstars Samuel Ramey and Frederica von Stade; performances of Brigadoon, Aida and The Gondoliers; Grammy Award-winning violinist/composer Mark O’Connor; and, jarring this polished lineup with a dose of their signature irreverence, the seemingly immortal Smothers Brothers, who appear July 18.

And now, a peek behind the scenes: At the music center, the emphasis of the summer program is on teaching the students to work as professionals. And surrounding them with stars seems as good a way as any to achieve that goal.

“The kids are in a glass house, and [so is] the faculty for that matter, because you live, breathe, eat, sleep music,” says Stephanie Eller, director of marketing and public relations (and a former BMC student herself). “[The students] eat in the cafeteria with the guest artists, with people of such stature as Frederica von Stade or [conductor] Keith Lockhart,” she reveals.

The immersion is total: “These demigods, walking around in their T-shirts, shorts and sneakers, are brought down to our human level,” she continues, noting, “They teach lessons and master classes a lot of the time. … The faculty performs side by side with the students, and often, the faculty is turning pages for the students, teaching them how to be good colleagues. It’s … pretty neat.”

One gets the impression that Eller’s passion for furthering the arts does not end with marketing strategies; specifically, her work isn’t over till the students are likewise inspired. The intense atmosphere of dream-building that marks the the summer program means BMC faculty and students often form more than just professional ties.

“It’s a time when people make lifelong connections and lifelong friends,” gushes Eller. “I’m constantly crossing paths with people that I sang with here. Some of them are singing at the Met; some of them are teaching; some are doing administration; and some are not involved [in music] except, perhaps, in their local communities. It’s really neat how everybody’s lives seem to overlap. And something seems to draw people back to the music center.”

Frederica von Stade makes her third appearance at the festival this year. “I love talking to the kids and answering any questions I can help with,” she reveals. Declining to gild her formal interactions with students a master class, von Stade prefers to call them talks: “You can’t really help somebody in an hour; when I do [master classes], I like to think of them as another chance to perform. What I try to offer kids is my experience.”

Which is considerable: The renowned mezzo-soprano debuted with the Metropolitan Opera in 1970, and that company recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of her debut with a production of The Merry Widow, in which she performed with Placido Domingo. She has appeared on PBS many times and has performed with some of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the London Symphony, and the Orchestra of La Scala. For her recording projects, von Stade has received six Grammy nominations, two Grand Prix du Disc awards and “Best of the Year” citations by Stereo Review and Opera News.

In 1998, she was honored with France’s highest arts award — appointment as an officer of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

In Brevard, she’ll share the stage with renowned basso Samuel Ramey, whom von Stade calls “an instrument in full bloom. … You marvel at him — you can’t help but marvel at him.” They’ll offer a selection of classical arias and duets, as well as popular tunes from Show Boat and Man of La Mancha, all accompanied by the Brevard Music Center Festival Orchestra.

The mezzo-soprano is a modest soul who esteems her colleagues first, referring to herself at one point as “an old broad.” But she does allow, “Of many of the art forms in the world, I think that singing is the greatest, because it’s such a natural expression of our humanity.”

On Tuesday, July 18, festival-goers can enjoy an indubitably American expression of humanity, courtesy of incessantly sparring siblings Tom and Dick Smothers, who gained notoriety in the late ’60s. Tom “Yo-Yo Man” Smothers, one half of the once-controversial duo, commented in a recent interview, “Working with my brother is like working with your wife, or someone you know pretty well. The same arguments we have at the house, we bring to the stage, and exaggerate it.” He quips: “We don’t get along that well. We are absolutely different people. My mother said if she put us in a Cuisinart, she’d have one perfect son.”

Tom is named for his father, Thomas B. Smothers Jr., whose roots are in Winston-Salem. The two siblings have weathered a lot during their 42-year partnership. The dramatic social climate of Vietnam War-era America — including the Kent State incident and the ’68 Democratic Convention — coincided with their run on television. Repeatedly censored by the network because of the brothers’ anti-war sentiments, The Smothers Brothers Show was canceled in 1969. Today, Tom observes: “I run into people now that say, ‘I never got to watch your show; my parents wouldn’t let me watch it. It was un-American. Then I run into other people whose parents told them they had to watch this show. You were either a hawk or a dove, or a ‘love it or leave it.’ There was no room for equivocation then. It was a revolution.”

Subverting the dominant paradigm was a way of life for them then — and that continues today, in their act. Unlike the vast majority of popular comedians now, the pair hasn’t succumbed to cheap shock tactics, spewing vulgarities to net a quick guffaw. Instead, they’ve held true to what works best for them: combining music and buffoonery, to appeal to the widest-possible audience. Tom insists that the act is more sophisticated now: “People are surprised at how musical we are. … It’s one of the [things] that has sustained us for so long.”

The Brevard Music Festival’s 2000 season runs for seven weeks, peppered with student recitals, workshops and classical and pops performances by both local acts and international superstars. The event kicks off on Saturday, June 17 with Cornell Gunter’s Coasters, Drifters and Platters. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show cost $22 to $25 (note: at press time, the event was nearly sold out).

Basso Samuel Ramey and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade perform on Saturday, July 15. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show range from $25-$45.

The Smothers Brothers perform on Tuesday, July 18. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show go for $20-$40. All three shows will take place in the Brevard Music Center’s Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium.

The BMC is located near downtown Brevard, 40 minutes southwest of Asheville off I-26 (take exit 9 to Hwy. 280).

Various ticket packages are available for individuals and groups. Although season tickets are sold out, advance lawn seating is still available for select performances. For more info and a complete schedule of performances, call the BMC box office at (828) 884-2019 or (888) 384-8682.

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