The Eastern Festival Orchestra is the EMF's heavy hitter, symphonically, but because the Eastern Music Festival is an educational undertaking, this faculty ensemble isn't always the liveliest, the most incisive, or even the best disciplined, for there are two all-student groups, populated by some of the brightest and best players from all over, that can and often do give the old folks serious runs for their playing money (so go hear 'em sometime, if you haven't). All that said, one must concede that the Festival Orchestra probably takes the palm in terms of sheer volume, as demonstrated on several occasions during its most recent outing in Dana Auditorium, on the campus of Guilford College.
The program consisted of music by Liszt (Les Préludes), Debussy (Danses sacrée et profane), Prokofiev (Violin Concerto No. 1), and Dvořák (Symphony No. 6), with music director Gerard Schwarz directing not one but two distinguished solo artists, harpist Amber Carpenter, winner of a recent competition at Appalachian State Univ., and violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, an artist of international caliber currently based in Austin who may perhaps be remembered by political junkies for her appearance on Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" several years ago.
Try to link the pieces into some sort of cohesive program. Well, the order of composition was Liszt, Dvořák, Debussy, and Prokofiev, and there's some faint stylistic similarity between portions of the last two, but otherwise the evening at its very best resembled nothing less than a grand tour – a very, very grand tour, indeed – with not a whole lot in common, aside from some of the very best orchestral (and solo) playing heard in these parts for a very long time.
Dana Auditorium was almost completely full, and that's a good thing, because we needed all those bodies to help absorb some of the rich, vibrant, and often-radiant sound that poured from the stage into the hall.
The Liszt began with surprising volume, this ultimately working to the disadvantage of the piece's later climaxes, but it didn't take long for the conductor to gain complete control, and most of this elegant tone poem exceeded expectations. Let there be no doubt: this is a real orchestra, right here in central NC in the middle of the summer, and its members can play!
There was relief in terms of volume in the Debussy, which featured one of NC's rising stars – the two articles about the Matthews native, linked above, are well worth reading. The music seemed bolder and more dramatic than the quieter passages, in particular, may have wanted, but the balance between the solo harp and the large body of accompanying strings was consistently fine. There was wave after wave of applause.
The Prokofiev concerto contains melodic fragments that were to recur in many later scores, illustrating the composer's astonishing precocity. It remains one of the great concerti of the 20th century, and the performance on this occasion demonstrated why, in no uncertain terms. Meyers was stunning, from her opening measures through the dramatic summits to the surprisingly tame finale. The concentration was on the music and her realization of it, and in this she was admirably partnered by Schwarz and his resident artists, never once getting ahead of the guest or encroaching on her incredibly beautiful tone, even in the very softest solo passages. Excitement mixed with awe continued throughout, even including Meyers' adjustment of a slipped string at the start of the second movement. Together, she and the orchestra made the whole piece sound easy, with the result that listeners were able to crawl inside the music in a manner that, even in a lifetime of listening, was at once rare and exceptional. The place went wild, to put it mildly, and ultimately the demonstrative audience was rewarded with Howard Arlen's "Somewhere over the Rainbow" (of which there are numerous versions by this violinist on YouTube).
The buzz continued through the intermission, so the Dvořák began – like a house afire – with many people still atwitter. That didn't last long, as this wonderful symphony – not heard "live" nearly often enough and rarely heard to such breathtaking advantage – unfolded before our ears for the next 45 minutes or so. The composer built in opportunities for applause at the end of every movement, but Schwarz had none of that, "conducting" the crowd with the same level of attention to detail he used during the music with the instrumentalists. To this listener's amazement, the audience paid him immaculate heed, so there wasn't a single misplaced clap. At the end there was another big uproar, with energy levels from the listeners clearly as keen as the players themselves had exuded during the course of this generous, demanding, and oh-so-satisfying concert.
Note to Regular Patrons: Next Saturday's concert will be presented in Aycock Auditorium, on the campus of UNCG.