This is the 58th season of the Eastern Music Festival, and this concert’s program is a perfect example of the potential menu such events can produce, freed of need to perform “bread and butter” repertoire for an orchestra’s subscription series. Where else could one find a Handel Concerto Grosso juxtaposed with a work by Schoenberg based on the same piece? A Bach concerto performed by a distinguished guest violinist served as an appetizer, while Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, as the main course, was freed of the acoustical haze of many a cathedral. Dana Auditorium‘s excellent acoustics paid dividends by enhancing the clarity of all the performances.

Music director Gerard Schwarz scaled down the number of players from the all-faculty Eastern Festival Orchestra for the two Baroque works that call for strings and harpsichord continuo only. For the Bach, he used five players each as first and second violins plus four violists, four cellists, two double bassists, and harpsichordist Ruoting Li, an EMF alumna and an Orchestral Fellow this season. He added about three extra string players to each section for the Handel.

Bach and Handel represented two different approaches to concertos derived from Arcangelo Corelli’s multi-movement model: slow-fast-slow-fast, and so on. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, S.1041, is based on Vivaldi’s more compact three-movement model, sandwiching two fast ones around a slow movement. Schwarz secured well-sprung rhythms throughout along with beautifully clear lines from each section. Soloist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg gave a very engaging interpretation with immaculate intonation and refined, expressive use of dynamics. Her seamless singing line throughout the Andante was entrancing, capped by her fancy bowing in the lively finale. The hall’s acoustical quality was evident from the fact the harpsichord continuo could be clearly heard from my balcony seat.

Handel’s set of twelve Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, was intended to honor Corelli as well as to capitalize on his publisher Walsh’s brisk sales of such sets by Corelli and others. Most concerti grossi contrast a smaller group of players (concertino) against a larger group (ripieno or tutti). This concert’s selection, the Concerto Grosso in B-flat, is the only one in the set without a concertino group. Its five movements are: Largo, Allegro, Largo e piano, Andante, and Hornpipe.

Despite the additional strings, Schwarz maintained clarity of textures here as noted in the Bach. The opening Largo had just the right amount of gravitas. The halting melodic line of the Allegro’s fugue came off marvelously. Four broad melodies were woven together winningly the third movement. His control of precise syncopated rhythms in the quirky Hornpipe brought the work to a richly satisfying conclusion.

Arnold Schoenberg was noted for his faithfulness to the notes in his transcriptions of composers such as Bach and Brahms, whom he held in high regard. Clearly he held Handel in lower esteem! He wrote of his “intent on removing defects of the Handelian style” by getting “rid of whole handfuls [sic] of rosalias and sequences” when he cut loose on Handel’s Concerto Grosso No. 7. To create his own loose adaptation, titled “Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra,” Schoenberg used a string quartet to create a concertino group omitted by Handel. Schoenberg unleashed the full resources of a symphony orchestra with woodwinds, brass, piano, and an array of percussion! The quartet players are coupled in various weird pairings with orchestra players not to mention wild anachronisms in string technique. Of course, the quartet’s music is entirely by Schoënberg.

The members of the Pacifica Quartet were arrayed around conductor’s podium. Schwarz led a jaw-dropping interpretation, holding the many astonishing excesses and surprising pairings under firm control. The intonation and phrasing of this “concertino” was superb. Among Handelian string themes was one played by trumpet, for example. Cymbal clashes, pairs of xylophones, timpani, bass drum, and brass choirs were just some of Schoenberg’s colorful, inflated score.

The Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 (“Organ Symphony”), by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) brought this concert to a glorious end, rather like the musical equivalent of fireworks. Saint-Saëns intended the work to be a tribute to Franz Liszt by using the latter’s method of cyclic transformation of a “motto” theme introduced early and modified throughout each movement. The tempi of the first half of the symphony are designated Adagio, Allegro moderato, and Poco adagio, while the second half is Allegro moderato, Presto, Maestoso, and Allegro. The prominent use of the organ and piano throughout is also an homage to Liszt. This concert used a large, portable, self-contained digital console organ.

Schwarz led a spellbinding performance with every section superbly balanced. Great care was given to instrumental color and clarity of line. While one missed the sheer power of, say, Duke Chapel’s mighty Flentrop, UNCG organist André Lash secured solid musical qualities from the console organ. The low notes were almost as much felt as heard while there was no lack of bravura in the closing movement. The senior piano keyboardist (of two) was Marika Bournaki; Ruoting Li provided the second set of hands. The organ was closely integrated within the orchestra to a degree rarely if ever experienced in performances given in resonant churches. All deserved the prolonged, rousing standing ovation.

The Eastern Music Festival continues! See our calendar for upcoming concerts this season.