At the beginning of the Eastern Music Festival’s website, there is a description of their orchestral program: “The Eastern Music Festival and School is one of this country’s foremost training programs for aspiring young musicians between the ages of 14 and 20, presented within the nationally known summer music festival of which it is part.” From reading this one might get the idea that an orchestra consisting entirely of these students would sound like a collection of young music students doing an admirable job playing some standard repertoire. Wrong!

On July 7, in the lovely Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus in Greensboro, the stage was filled with a group of musicians who mostly appeared to be closer to the 14-year-old range than the upper 20-year limit. This by itself is certainly not unusual, except for the fact that they were about to play Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, one of the most difficult, complex, and emotionally wrenching works in the entire orchestral repertoire. Quite often on this website, my colleagues and I have written reviews of concerts where we have in essence lowered the bar. University orchestras are generally not expected to perform at the same level as the North Carolina Symphony; amateur chamber groups are certainly not supposed to play with the same finesse and musical depth as visiting artists on many of the wonderful chamber music series throughout this area. So when I saw a group of children from all over the country coming together – for first time this summer – to play a work that is a huge challenge for even the greatest orchestras, I thought I’d have to give them lots of goodwill and praise for just getting through it. After about two minutes, it was clear that no special favors were necessary – this was a performance that any orchestra would be proud to have played.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony falls in the middle of his output of purely instrumental symphonies and is his most “classical” in form, having four movements in more or less the standard tempos of a Beethoven symphony. At first it had the subtitle of “Tragic,” but Mahler later removed that moniker (although many recordings and performances still list it that way). It was completed in 1904 during what was an unusually happy period in his life, so the original underlying “Tragic” label was a bit perplexing. The work contains an intriguing mystery regarding the “three blows of fate” of which “the last felled him,” in the finale. His wife Alma was so unnerved by the symbolism of these mammoth percussive hammer strokes that were to strike her husband that she convinced him to omit the third. Although the critical edition of Mahler’s symphonies does in fact only contain two of these strokes, many conductors (including the leader of this performance) choose to honor his original intent and include the third.

On the podium for this remarkable display of young musicianship was José-Luis Novo. A native of Spain, Novo, now in his seventh season as a member of the EMF conducting faculty, is the newly appointed Music Director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. Novo is a lively and energetic conductor who portrayed just the right amount of expressive direction to a group that was understandably concerned with just playing this exceedingly difficult score. Since assignments for the Festival Orchestra do not take place till after the printing of the comprehensive season-long program guide, it is impossible to name any of the principals or other players. I was sitting in the fourth row and was able to observe the constant attention the players paid to the conductor. This is no small feat, considering the high level of concentration it takes to play the notes, but that was what pushed this performance from just a great reading by very accomplished players to one that was quite astounding in its musical maturity and interpretation. I hesitate to point out one particular section, but I was particularly impressed by the horns. Mahler has very exposed, virtuosic passages for the horns, and there was not one splat or weak note throughout the hour-and-twenty-minute work – which was played without intermission. All of the attacks were precise, in tune, and beautifully blended. My only criticism – a minor one – is that the cellos could have been more aggressive in the passages where they had the dominant part.

I shut my eyes for several extended periods during this concert and when I looked again it was hard to reconcile the sound I was hearing with my view of children, many of whom are not old enough to drive. The EMF faculty who select these wonderful young musicians sure know how to pick ’em. This was some of the finest orchestral playing that I have ever heard – from any age, at any level.

For a list of the EMF’s concerts, click here [inactive 11/05].