A nearly sold-out crowd of music lovers packed Dana Auditorium on Guilford College's bucolic campus for an eagerly anticipated evening of great music at the Eastern Music Festival. A living composer was present for the premiere of one of a decade-long series of commissions for the festival by Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, former Ambassador to Finland 2001-03. The first half of the program included a power-house showpiece for piano and orchestra, and the concert ended with one of the most powerful ballet scores of the 20th century.
The brief, elegant, and charming work given its world premiere is "Lullaby" (2010, 2014), by John Corigliano (b.1938). It originated as a violin and piano piece to celebrate the birth of violinist Anne Akiko-Meyers' child. In response to the McElveen-Hunter commission and Music Director Gerard Schwarz, the composer orchestrated the piece with Jeffrey Multer, the concertmaster of the EMF Festival Orchestra, in mind. Besides being a friend, Multer would be playing one of the instruments belong to the composer's father. (John Corigliano, Sr., was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for 23 years.)
As might be expected, the work's lovely melodies are imaginatively scored with lovely pairings between violin soloist and woodwinds, especially flute and oboe. The restrained dynamics never failed to hold this listener's attention with refined scoring for the strings. Did I hear a more-suggested-than-heard brief hint of brass? Multer made the most of this most subtle "show piece" as Schwarz led the orchestra, weaving a wonderful aural context. Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, in comments from the stage before the performance, dedicated it to her mother, who was in the audience.
The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in A Minor, Op. 43, is one of the most popular works of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). The score is a triumph of skill, and the solo piano part is as rewarding to watch as it is to hear. The work consists of a brief introduction followed by the theme, leading to twenty-four variations. The melody, from the Capriccio in A minor by Niccolò Paganini, had been mined by many composers before, most famously by Liszt and Brahms. Rachmaninoff reveals the full theme over the course of the first six fast-paced variations. Almost every major Rachmaninoff work has a statement of the "Dies irae," a 13th century Gregorian chant melody set to a poem by St. Thomas of Celano, evoking the world's fiery destruction and the Last Judgment. This theme, associated with Satan, haunts the re-working of the Paganini theme from Variation 7 through Variation 10. Variation 18 is the heart of the set, with its remote key of D-flat and its gorgeous, luxurious lyricism. Variations 19-24 build to a brilliant conclusion. Over the course of the piece, the instrumental fireworks never end; thundering octaves, rapid arpeggios, and remarkable pairings between keyboard and various section principals are just a few of the delights.
Pianist Jon Kimura Parker turned in a magnificent performance in which he seemed to play as one possessed, with wonderfully dramatic fingerings and hair-trigger precision. He fully exploited the dynamic range of the Seiler piano, new at the festival this year. This piece gave full scope to the instrument's low range, which more than passed muster. Schwarz led the orchestra in a virtuosic performance that fitted Parker's interpretation like a glove. Pairings with orchestra principals were delightful.
Repeated curtain calls for Parker were rewarded with an unusual encore. Parker asked faculty pianist William Wolfram to join him onstage for a piano-four-hands performance of the Slavonic Dance in G Minor, Op. 46, No. 8, by Antonín Dvořàk. They pulled out all the stops and brought down the house.
Petrushka (1911) is one of the three great ballets (including The Firebird and The Rite of Spring) composed by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) for the Ballets Russes between 1910 and 1913). The ballet's plot is a love triangle among puppets based on archetypal characters, the clown Petrushka, a ballerina, and a Moor. The orchestral opening evokes the sounds of a pre-Lent Carnival in St. Petersburg. Over the course of the scene, the puppets seem to come to life and act out the triangle's tragic passions, which draw to a close with Petruska's death. His ghost's laughter ends the piece.
Schwarz led a fiery, virtuosic performance with terrific ensemble and fine individual performances from every player. Among the many first chair solos were those of concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, flutist Les Roettges, oboist Randall Ellis, clarinetist Shannon Scott, contrabassoonist Anthony Anurca and, especially, Chris Gekke, trumpet and Gideon Rubin, who played the extensive piano part. This was a terrific and richly satisfying performance.
The festival continues through July 26. For details, see our calendar.