Noted pianist André-Michel Schub has served as EMF Artistic Director since 1999, succeeding Interim Music Director Edmon Colomer, who held that position for one season after the Festival's founder, conductor Sheldon Morgenstern, left. Schub's high artistic standing helped attract outstanding guest artists and raised the quality of the student performances by shifting to older, more experienced applicants. The Festival successfully weathered a severe financial crisis during the 2000 season. Thomas Philion has been appointed the CEO and a search is underway for a permanent conductor or music director. This year Schub cut back on his involvement and was listed as Artistic Advisor. The last week of the festival brought his only artistic appearances at this season's concerts and they were all most rewarding.
Dana Auditorium was virtually full for the July 30 concert of the Eastern Chamber Players, the membership of which consists of Festival faculty members. It's a favorite ensemble among area audiences. An unhackneyed all-Beethoven concert was on tap. I have often commented on both the precision and sensitivity of Schub's playing as well as the heightened sense of interplay between him and his colleagues. All these virtues were on display during the opening Quintet in E-flat, Op. 16, for piano and winds. Despite having the piano lid fully up, none of the wind players were covered. Balances were ideal. The composer's rhetoric was beautifully argued. The important clarinet part was played by Judith Donaldson. Schub brought an almost Mozartean clarity to the second movement, which had fine solo lines for oboist Susan Eischeid and hornist Kevin Kozak. The fact that bassoonist Cedric Coleman was the only player who was a section principal underscored the artistic depth of the EMF faculty.
The light "Kakadu" Variations, for piano trio, served to clear the musical palate before the next entrée. Again the piano lid was fully up but balances were perfect with the string players. High Point native James Gilles, chairman of the EMF piano department for the 2002 season, brought clarity and precision to his part. The ensemble had some sensitive "pp" playing and effective phrasing. Beth Vanderborgh, Principal Cellist of the GSO in the regular season, brought out a fine rich tone with resonant pizzicatos. Kristen Van Ausdal, a member of the first violin section of the Eastern Philharmonic, displayed excellent intonation and a good tone.
The concert ended on a high note with an extraordinarily vital performance of the Septet in E-flat, Op. 20, for strings and winds. Associate Concertmaster Lisa Sutton was superb in the extensive violin part which was first among equals. Ensemble blend and balances were ideal and the composer gave every player moments in which to shine. Only bassoonist Karla Ekholm wasn't a section principal. Clarinetist Shannon Scott was up to her usual high standard and she was joined by hornist Leslie Norton, violist Daniel Reinker, cellist Neal Cary and bassist Leonid Finkelshteyn.
For the matinee performance in Dana Auditorium on August 3, relatively few of the regular EMF audience were present. Instead, most attendees were parents and relatives, anxious to see their prides and joys show off what they had learned. These annual family concerts give one the chance to hear both student orchestras at the end of the season. The growth in confidence, technical assurance and ensemble playing skills were notable in both orchestras since their earlier essays in the two opera galas.
The Eastern Symphony Orchestra played two short showpieces under the direction of Jose-Luis Novo. The "Buckaroo Holiday" from Aaron Copland's Rodeo, revealed a good uniform massed string sound. The irregular rhythms were handled with aplomb. Woodwinds, brass and percussion were excellent. The humorous portamentos and exaggerated pauses in the trombone solo of the cowboy song "If he'd be a buckaroo by his trade," came off well. Ensemble was tight. Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Prank s gave the entire orchestra the acid test. The horns were outstanding and all sections turned in good and confident performances. The Concertmistress was excellent in her articulation of all those rapid high notes in her solos.
The Guilford Symphony Orchestra, directed by Scott Sandmeier, played just one work. Stravinsky's Suite from The Firebird challenged every section of the orchestra and they succeeded in meeting most of them. With only three basses bowing and the remaining one playing pizzicato, there was no way so few players could bring off the dark, rich effect the composer wanted during the quiet and ominous opening. Both student orchestra conductors were better than most of the visiting conductors in getting their orchestras to play truly quietly and using a more effective range of dynamics expressively. Sandmeier was particularly good at this in this work. With a true "pp" baseline, the really loud parts such as "Kastchei's Dance" were the wrenching experiences they ought to be. Important solos by the Concertmaster, principal cellist and oboe were all for which one could have wished. The horn player was superb with some memorable sustained notes. The conductor had the many fine soloists stand to be acknowledged by the prolonged applause.
Dana Auditorium was packed for the final concert of the EMF's 41st season, presented on the evening of August 3. Schub has sold out the house ever since his first appearance as a guest artist during the Morgenstern years and has continued to do so during his period as Artistic Director and now as Artistic Advisor. We hope that he will continue to grace the region's stages both as soloist and as a chamber musician of the highest quality. Returning for her fourth stint as guest conductor for the finale was JoAnn Faletta, one of America's foremost women conductors. Word of mouth reports about the quality of her work alone would have packed the house.
Francophiles regretted the change of program that dropped the Overture to Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz, but the substitution was apt in view of the EMF's dedication of the entire season's performances to the memory of EMF patron Leah Louise Tannenbaum (whose June 21 death was reported in our news section). Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman was a rousing opener. From its piercing opening chords through its complex interplay of brass and percussion, Falletta maintained tight control. Balances were excellent and tricky rhythms sustained.
Schub, Falletta and every section of the orchestra were in top form for a stirring performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto in C Minor. As a pianist, Schub has technique to spare and he deploys it with consummate intelligence and style. His purity of tone and sensitive dynamics brought out this concerto's debt to Mozart in the first movement. Beethoven's own brusque early Romantic style burst through in the later two movements. Both artists' body language conveyed their deep involvement with the music without the distracting over-the-top contortions that plague some lesser talent's performances. Balances between piano and orchestra were superb. Both clearly understood and used true "pp," allowing for exceptionally expressive dynamics. Schub's precise articulation was extraordinary.
While we had admired Faletta's conducting of Brahms' Fourth Symphony when she last guest conducted the North Carolina Symphony, nothing prepared us for her breath-taking interpretation of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E Minor that ended the concert. Every section of the orchestra was in top form. Balances, dynamics and phrasing were ideal. Eschewing a traditional thick plush all-purpose romantic sound, Faletta brought out every musical strand. She brought an almost Mendelssohnian clarity to the second movement that related it to the later Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances. Important solos were beautifully and expressively played by Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, Principal Clarinetist Shannon Scott, Principal Oboist Eric Olson and Principal Hornist Leslie Norton. A string player revealed that pretty much standard cuts were observed but nothing was missed in the inexorable sweep of Faletta's conception.