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Carolyn Kuan, formerly an assistant conductor with the North Carolina Symphony and currently an assistant conductor with the Seattle Symphony, made an impressive Triad debut with one of the two all-student Festival Orchestras at the Eastern Music Festival. Two orchestral showpieces sandwiched pieces featuring skilled soloists.
Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a, received a good, solid standard interpretation. Kuan created a fine harmonie (Viennese wind band) sound as the brass and woodwinds blended during the opening slow statement of the theme (long wrongly attributed to Haydn). The following eight variations were carefully crafted with good section ensemble, fine string tone, and clear articulation of contrapuntal and rhythmic complexities.
Guest violinist Sirena Huang, a scholarship student studying with Stephen Clapp at the Juilliard School Pre-College division, has already racked up an impressive series of international debuts. She is 12 years old, but no allowances were needed for her very impressive performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64. She played a fine, full-sized violin, producing a warm, full sound with spectacular intonation and exact articulation in the fastest passages. She not only got all the notes right but also phrased with a maturity well beyond her age. Kuan and her alert musicians provided beautifully balanced and nuanced accompaniment. The concerto is in three seamless movements. Solo bassoonist Michael Zuber played the transition between the second movement and the finale with great panache.
There is nothing reticent about EMF faculty powerhouse pianist Christina Dahl, and she pulled out all the stops for a white-hot performance of Gershwin's Variations on "I Got Rhythm" for Piano and Orchestra. Kuan and her eager musicians joined in with the same intensity, and the jazzy sections really cooked!
Before the Suite from Háry János by Zoltán Kodály had ended, the walls of Dana Auditorium had been thoroughly shaken by thrilling forte efforts from the brass and percussion sections. Kuan brought out the maximum of dynamic contrast and exact attacks. The opening sound of the cellos and double basses was dark and rich. The important viola solo was beautifully phrased by Robert Howell. Charlton Holt brought out all the sadness in the dirge for saxophone. I missed hearing the distinctive Hungarian sound of the cimbalom*. In addition to the regular orchestral part for the piano, Margaret Yi intrepidly played the music originally scored for the cimbalom. Kuan brought out all the story-telling drama in the Suite drawn from Kodály's opera of the same name.
*At one time there was only one professional player with a cimbalom in the state. Alexandra Jones' July 18, 2007, feature introduces Triangle resident Petra Berényi, a violist who also tours with her cimbalom.