The Eastern Music Festival presents faculty chamber music concerts on successive Monday and Tuesday nights throughout the festival. Featured Saturday night concerto soloists are frequent guests on the Monday night concerts, held in the fine acoustics of the Recital Hall of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The hall was packed with music lovers and students for this eagerly-anticipated program which featured July 19 piano soloist Jon Kimura Parker and the world premiere of a piece by internationally famous composer Bright Sheng (b.1955)
The concert opened with a rare performance of Four Minatures for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 75a by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). The viola was Dvořák’s instrument. When he had heard two amateurs play duets in January 1887, he decided to compose an easier piece to play with the duo when he found they were not up for his lovely but challenging Terzetto, Op. 74. The composer finished the four brief movements, two slow ones surrounding two faster ones, and then recast them for solo violin as the Four Romantic Pieces, which is the form most commonly heard.
The players were violinists John Fadial and Countnney LeBauer and violist Sarah Cote (not Jamie Hofman, as listed in the program). Fadial played the rich, flowing romantic melody that soared gorgeously above an interesting aural base from his colleagues in the first miniature. The interplay was equally distributed in the remaining three numbers, with lovely tone from both LeBauer and Cote.
A rare vocal contribution to the festival came next, "Dover Beach," Op. 4, for baritone and string quartet, by Samuel Barber (1910-81). Barber had studied singing at the Curtis Institute. Much of Barber’s music seems to reflect a Brahms-like evocation of regret, an air of sadness for things lost. Matthew Arnold’s grave and romantic poem "Dover Beach" must have appealed to that vein in Barber’s temperament. The instrumental textures perfectly paint each scene the singer describes, and the opening and ending conjure up a calm sea on a moonlit night. The second stanza is haunted by a pessimistic atmosphere leading to a passionate, dark climax in the last two stanzas before the return to the sea at night. The virtuoso baritone soloist was Keith Spencer, who sang with a full, warm tone and projected the words with great care for the meaning and pronunciation. The fine string quartet consisted of violinists Yuka Kadota and Jenny Gregoiré, violist Jennifer Packett, and cellist Beth Vanderborgh.
Bright Sheng’s Deep Red was co-commissioned by the Eastern Music Festival and the Tanglewood Music Center; this was its world premiere. It is scored for marimba solo and an eleven-member chamber ensemble with some woodwind doubling. Bright Sheng’s note indicates that the marimba’s limited range of timbre was a challenge he met by "using different devices in the orchestration, some subtle while others bold." Continuing, he writes, "What I hoped to achieve is an assortment of tonal colors within the warm deep red marimba sound.” The thematic elements come from a love song the composer wrote during his teenage years living in Qinghai, China. The remote province on the Tibetan Plateau was a rich source of folk musical influences.
The marimba soloist was John Parks, who extracted a remarkable amount of tone and dynamic range and effects from his instrument. The conductor was Music director Gerard Schwarz, who led the eleven-member chamber ensemble. The players were Ann Choomack, flute and piccolo, Karen Birch, oboe and English horn, Anthony Taylor, clarinet, Robert Rearden, horn, Corine Brouwer, violin, Lucas Guideri, violin, Diane Phoenix-Neal, viola, Julian Schwarz, cello, Marc Facci, double bass, and Eunhye Grace Choi, piano. Bright Sheng’s mastery of instrumentation was evident in every bar of this fascinating piece. Some parts were hushed and diaphanous; there were some wild whoops from the French horn and magical textures from the woodwinds, and interesting turns in the spotlight for everyone. The marimba and xylophone family are my least favorite instruments yet I look forward to hearing this work again and hope it will turn up on Naxos’s growing list of Bright Sheng’s always intriguing works.
The great Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, by Johannes Brahms (1833-97) brought this concert to a rousing conclusion. Its well-known four movements burst with musical ideas and youthful exuberance leavened with genius. The surging rhythms of the “gypsy” rondo never fail to please. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker was joined by EMF concert master Jeffrey Multer, violist Meredith Crawford, and cellist Danielle Guideri. The string players produced lush, rich string tones paired with precise intonation and sure rhythms. Parker played the fiery keyboard part with great panache. Together they played the socks off the piece and brought the audience to its feet for repeated curtain calls.
This was the last Monday night Faculty Chamber Music concert of this 2014 EMF season, which ends with a Festival Orchestra concert Saturday. There are concerts every night through July 26. For details, see our calendar.
This has been a spectacular season and the EMF seems to get even better every year.