Saturday night’s concert by the Eastern Music Festival‘s faculty orchestra, the Eastern Festival Orchestra, under the dynamic direction of music director Gerard Schwarz, was filled with colorful and dramatic music. All of the compositions were examples of program music, designed to tell a story.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote October – Symphonic Poem, Op. 131 in 1967 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. While one might think that the piece would depict heroism, it’s more complicated than that.

Shostakovich quotes several passages from his earlier symphonies as well as some “revolutionary” tunes in this intense, no-holds barred 13-minute work. From the solemn unison string passage that opens the work to the furtive Allegro, Maestro Schwarz kept the unrelenting intensity palpable. To be sure, there are military rhythms and a kind of exhausting heroism by the end, much of which provided a field day for the orchestra’s fine brass section.

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) completed the opera Le Coq d’or (The Golden Cockerel) in 1907. The libretto, based on a Pushkin work, tells the tale of the aging Tsar Dodon. The Suite taken from the staged work consists of four movements that highlight some of the events of the Tsar’s life.

In the opening “Tsar Dodon in His Palace,” a sorcerer gives the Tsar a cockerel that will warn him of any impending danger. The Tsar rewards the sorcerer by granting him any wish. The music opens with a solo trumpet (representing the cockerel), followed by exotic scales. Most of the music is gentle, depicting the Tsar’s ability to now relax since he has a warning system, but toward the end, the cockerel shrieks and military trumpets herald a battle.

The second, slow movement, “Tsar Dodon on the Battlefield,” finds the ruler on the battlefield where both of his sons lay slain by each other. The music, of course, is elegiac.

The Tsar finds some comfort in “Tsar Dodon as the Guest of the Queen of Shemakha,” where the lovely Queen magically appears – here is music reminiscent of the composer’s Scheherazade – portraying both love and dance themes.

The final movement, “The Wedding and Lamentable End of Dodon” begins cheerfully enough, but when the sorcerer appears and asks that he be granted his wish – the Queen – the Tsar kills the sorcerer, and the cockerel kills the Tsar, all accompanied by riotous music.

Rimsky-Korsakov is justly known for his wonderful orchestration, and the EFO brilliantly played the many-hued score with commitment, energy, and well, color.

The pièce de résistance of the evening was the 1897 tone poem Don Quixote (Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character), Op. 35 by Richard Strauss (1864-1949). This magnificent work, a theme and variations, depicts several scenes from the Cervantes novel of the same title. A solo cello (sometimes aided by solo violin) represents Quixote, while a solo viola (sometimes aided by tenor tuba and bass clarinet) characterizes Sancho Panza, his squire.

The distinguished guest artist Lynn Harrell portrayed Quixote in both his cello playing and his facial expressions and body language. His collaborator was concertmaster Jeffrey Multer. On viola was first-chair Daniel Reinker, supported by Kelly Burke (bass clarinet) and Jesse Rackley* (tenor tuba).

Don Quixote is a wide-ranging work that meticulously portrays the knight-errant’s deeds. The scenes are gems of musical depiction, with the large orchestra used to conjure up bleating sheep, sinking ships, pilgrims and a ride through the air, among other escapades.

Harrell’s tone was somewhat earth-bound, perhaps to capture Quixote’s inability to see reality clearly. The duets with Multer were perfectly matched in character, if not always rhythmically in synch. Reinker’s playing was clear and forceful, as were his companions. 

The orchestra played the tour-de-force with abandon, delighting in the giant climaxes and the gentle calm moments. Orchestral intonation and ensemble were not always perfect, but the overall effect was intoxicating. And no one was working harder than Maestro Schwarz, whose careful attention to the soloist’s every move was rewarded with good ensemble between orchestra and cello.

Harrell treated the large audience to an encore, a lovely playing of Bach’s Prelude in G for solo cello. It was a refreshing sherbet that topped off a very full meal.

For more information on pending EMF concerts, visit our calendar.

* Edited and corrected on 7/13/15.