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The July 15 concert of the all-student EMF Festival Orchestra was irresistible for any Francophile. Conductor Scott Sandmeier programmed Francis Poulenc's piquant Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932) with faculty pianists Yoshikazu Nagai and James Giles as soloists. French composers have never been reluctant to focus both on music as a source of pleasure, and on style and color as ends in themselves. Poulenc, like fellow members of the "Group of Six," was inspired by the cheeky jests against Romantic profundity launched by Eric Satie. His delightfully flippant Double Concerto is full of tunes that range from the neo-classical to those of the music hall. Most striking is the percussive figure played by the two pianos that opens the concerto and reappears more extensively near the end of the first movement. It evokes the sound world of a Balinese gamelan orchestra. Like Debussy and Ravel, Poulenc was deeply influenced by the gamelan at the 1931 Exposition Coloniale de Paris . Sandmeier secured tight ensemble playing from the students. Balance was fine and the many pizzicatos were precisely together. Nagai and Giles matched their keyboard style and hues perfectly.
The opening Ruy Blas Overture, Op. 95, by Mendelssohn gave every section of the orchestra a chance to display its sumptuous string tones and glowing brass. String articulation was outstanding with rhythms alert and vital. Both the cello and viola sections had opportunities to show their ability to bow as if they were one, not a dozen players.
Despite their youthful illusions of immortality, the students turned in a very satisfying performance of Richard Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration," Op. 24, giving Sandmeier everything he asked for: sensitive choices in dynamics, pacing and phrasing. Paul Keesling's timpani perfectly gave the heartbeats of an ebbing life. The players provided vivid interpretations of the recollections of past struggles, and the transformation music was beautifully molded. Among the many fine musicians Sandmeier acknowledged were: Concertmistress Patricia Rudisill, cellist Alex Fink, bassoonist Lauren Yu, clarinetist Melissa Garner, flutist Daniel Buscher, oboist Timothy Barnes and English horn player Jennifer Christen.