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The ever-amazing P. I. Tchaikovsky was present on the Thursday and Friday night Eastern Music Festival concerts of the two also-amazing student orchestras, representing some 120 outstanding young musicians from all over the U.S. as well as a generous handful of students from Asia and Europe. These orchestras are each under the general direction and supervision of a seasoned professional conductor; José-Luis Novo, originally from Spain, and Grant Cooper, originally from New Zealand. Both are long-time residents of the U.S. Each student orchestra opened its concert with a suite that permitted us over both nights to enjoy the work of eight Conducting Fellows who have spent the summer under the tutelage of the two Resident Conductors and of the prestigious Maestro Gerard Schwarz.
The opening work on the Thursday (July 14) concert was the Suite from Swan Lake, Opus 20a, excerpted from Tchaikovsky's first ballet score (the others being Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker). Maestro Novo set the tone with the somber Scène (originally at the end of Act I) and the well-known Pas de quatre, (Dance of the Little Swans) before yielding the podium to the imposing young Georgian (U.S.), Kellen Gray who conducted the very familiar Waltz (Act I) with gestures so smooth and polished they almost looked like choreography in themselves! Returning fellow Ho-Yin Kwok, originally from Hong Kong, impressed again this year with his clean and sensitive conducting of the White Swan Pas de deux (Act II), perturbed only briefly by an out-of-tune harp but featuring a lovely solo from 18-year-old concertmaster Yejoo Esther Lee (from Itta Bana, Mississippi).
Charm is certainly the long suit of conductor Avlana Eisenberg, whose tilted glances, bent-at-the-waist posture, and twisted hand high over her head appeared to be more embellishments than essentials – until the faster, louder section near the end (Hungarian and Spanish Dances), when necessity became the mother of efficacy. The final conducting fellow of the first evening, Hannah Threlkeld, led the Danse Napolitaine and the Mazurka with gusto and clarity, although there was a predictable "sameness" to her gestures and an indecisive ending to the Mazurka. However, this writer suspects there is more music in Ms. Threnkelk than the baton indicates.
The Friday (July 15) concert started with the Suite from Lieutenant Kijé, Op. 60, by Sergei Prokofiev, conducted by the other four EMF Conducting Fellows. Ken Yanagisawa led the musical description of the birth of the non-existent Lt. Kijé with a discreet and unostentatious presence that nonetheless brought this comic score effectively to life. Nisan Ak, from Istanbul, Turkey, astonishingly bare-armed in a profession deeply entrenched in tradition, conducted the Romance with grace and a touch of comic pantomime that sent titters through the audience. Again, I am convinced that there is more musical substance than meets the eye.
Second-year EMF Conducting Fellow Sean Bresemann wielded a hefty presence on the podium and seemed to be one of the most effective young conductors. His beat was clean and straightforward – large in the loud passages, small in the soft, and no beat before its time. Finally, Ryan Tani fairly bounded onto the podium and led Kijé's funeral with clarity and precision, without affectation or excess.
All the Conducting Fellows will lead the Eastern Festival Orchestra at the EMF Open House on Sunday, July 27, at 4:00 p.m,. in Dana Auditorium. The Open House is free of charge and begins at 1:00 p.m. with a percussion ensemble.
The concert of the Young Artists Orchestra of Thursday, July 14 concluded with an excellent performance of one of Dmitri Shostakovich's most frequently played symphonies, the Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (the others being his First and his Fifth). This was conducted by Maestro Novo, back after a summer's sabbatical leave. Bearing similarities to Haydn's 103rd, the 10th's long, lugubrious introduction is in three beats per measure and is structured as a slow but steady string crescendo, increasing in tension as well as loudness until it must break – which it does after bouts of hemiola – into a light-hearted second theme by the playful flute in its lowest register.
There is always a great deal of combined unison in Shostakovich, commented upon by massive chords, particularly when approaching the climax of a movement. This extraordinary tension often needs a long dénouement (lit. Fr. "unknotting"), which is certainly the case at the end of this 20-minute-long first movement, when the composer weaves two piccolos around each other in a fairly low register with a tympani pedal and strings pizzicato anchoring the key of E minor.
In the second movement, all hell breaks loose; it is meant to portray the savage side of the Stalin era and can never be played at the tempo Shostakovich requests: measure (half note) equals 178 beats per minute in the first edition (Leeds), tempered down to measure equals 120 bpm in following editions (Chant du Monde, Boosey & Hawkes). Yet even at the speed that the orchestra was able to master, the intended ferocity was palpable in the hall!
The third movement, a Scherzo somewhat Mahler-esque in stature and character, introduces a personal note of individuality – Dmitri Shostakovich's initials translated into musical notes in the German musical scale – D, S (E-flat), C, H (B-natural), as well as the first name of a student Shostakovich was very fond of, Elmira Nazirova [E, L (la = A), Mi ( = E), R (Re = D) A] or E-A-E-D-A sounded forcefully and frequently by the horn.
The Finale opens with a lament on the oboe that is passed on to the flute and then the bassoon, played rather too fast to produce the pathos implied in the score. After the introduction, the clarinets boisterously start a typical rondo theme that bounces merrily through the orchestra, but not without several insistent recalls of the composer's initials – Shostakovich had survived his nemesis, Stalin!
On Friday night (July 15), the second half of the concert was devoted to a performance of P. I. Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, led by Resident Conductor Cooper and played by the other Young Artists Orchestra. The orchestra responded excellently but I take exception to the hasty tempos of the second and fourth movements. The particularly fast finale was robbed of the pathos we expect in this final masterpiece of the genius, Tchaikovsky.