Our state is known for its outdoor dramas. Outdoor concerts, too. But these have their ups and downs, particularly in periods of heavy rain or oppressive heat and humidity. So it’s a good thing that there are lots of things to see and hear in NC this summer that offer air-conditioned comfort for audiences and artists, too. These include the wonderful chamber music festival that, through August 11, enriches the Highlands and Cashiers region; the Appalachian Summer Festival, in Boone through August 1; the chamber music festival bearing Swannanoa‘s name (with concerts also in Charlotte and Waynesville), through July 23; and of course the centrally-located gem that is Greensboro’s Eastern Music Festival, with worthwhile things to do every day – literally – through July 27.

There’s an added bonus at the EMF: for as long as there’s been an EMF, one of the least well-kept secrets in the Old North State is that the faculty orchestra that assembles there every summer is the finest orchestra that routinely plays within our borders. I know this sort of assertion can ruffle a lot of feathers, but think about it. These folks play and teach. They don’t ride all over the place (aside from some run-outs to Boone). All their educational work is confined to Greensboro. They are not driven by market – or marketing – vagaries, demands, or considerations. They draw decent and oftentimes substantial crowds. They’re not unduly influenced by dependence upon funding provided by agenda-driven politicians. The orchestra is large enough – with enough strings, in particular – to merit being called a real symphonic ensemble. And the whole enterprise is headed by an American conductor with distinguished artistic and educational credentials. (For a history of the EMF, click here.) What a wonderful thing for all the participants! What a boon to travel and tourism of the cultural kind! And what a great opportunity for music lovers throughout the southeast!

On Saturday night, after the Independence Day holiday, there was, in Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium, the kind of program that no other orchestra in our state would have dared present on a regular subscription program. The evening involved three soloists in two important 20th-century works, given back-to-back in the first half, followed by a new 21st-century piece that packed awesome power and emotional impact, and capped by an almost-20th-century work that is widely known as one of the greatest orchestral showpieces ever written. The concert was part of the Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Festival Orchestra Series.

The guest artists included pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the son of the famed Russian dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who has become well-known here in NC in his work as conductor, orchestral soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician. He played Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in C minor, for piano, trumpet, and strings (1933), in which his equally stellar partner was Chris Gekker. The accompanying strings were members of the Festival Orchestra, and on the podium was Gerard Schwarz, who knows a thing or two about the trumpet, having served as Co-Principal of the New York Philharmonic till the mid-’70s while concurrently launching his career as a conductor.

The other guest was Greg Banaszak, whose playing – in Alan Hovhaness’ Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings (1980) – lived up to all his advance billing. It was this work that, after some shifting around of the program, began the concert. It was an effective opener in which the solo instrument contrasted and engaged attractively with a string section of basically chamber-orchestra size, radiantly positioned for optimal acoustic differentiation, with the violins divided, left and right, the cellos and basses behind the first violins, and the violas behind the seconds – an arrangement that was retained for the entire program. (This was the seating used by Toscanini at the NBC Symphony. It’s almost never used nowadays – a mystery, since it opens up the cellos and basses to the hall and facilitates hearing the violins when their parts are divided. Three cheers for Schwarz for reminding us how much difference it can make!)

The concerto is a worthwhile piece with a decidedly old-fashioned air about it, more than a little suggesting a suite of old English dances, enriched by several fugues, and only ever so slightly jazzy in exceedingly restrained ways. The Armenian-American composer gets too little respect and too few performances. This one was most welcome.

Then came the Shostakovich. Solzhenitsyn is one of the very finest artists of his generation, one who can play almost everything with equal conviction and success, but with that name – well, it’s probably understandable that the Principal Guest Conductor of the Moscow Symphony is closely associated with Russian music. This concerto demonstrates that the composer’s manic-depressive nature (or paranoid-schizophrenic, or bi-polar – call it what you will) manifested itself early in his life. There are few concerted works that turn so rapidly as this one from melancholy to frenetic, from lyrical to vehemently harsh. With Schwarz watching like the proverbial hawk, and with trumpeter Gekker and the guest pianist frequently squaring off against one another – and with Solzhenitsyn’s hair flying around more than we’ve ever previously seen – this was a perch-on-the-edge-of-your-seat performance like few others in a lifetime of concert-going – and like no others in recent memory hereabouts. Along with the players, the audience members, too, needed an intermission when it was over.

Robert Beaser‘s six-minute “Ground O” (that’s the letter, not the number, the program notes tell us) has had a remarkable evolution, starting as a wordless song a month after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 but a decade later being recast as a valedictory piece for Schwarz, upon the occasion of his departure as Music Director in Seattle and premiered there on February 11, 2011. It’s a strong and powerful work with a staggeringly wide dynamic range that made a big impression on the occasion of what must have been its NC premiere.

There followed Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” Op. 36 (1898-99). There are few more effective orchestral showpieces and – truth to tell – few more effective English compositions since the days of Handel and Purcell. The enigma has never been fully explained to any scholar’s complete satisfaction; here’s a discussion of the work’s portraits – 14 people and a dog. It’s effective to have a roadmap, such as the one provided in the program. It’s still more effective if the sections are delineated – as they sometimes are – with projections. No matter that didn’t happen this time. The playing was at such an exalted level that most listeners were surely overwhelmed by the splendor of the music and its radiant realization by these master artists. The strings dug in at every opportune moment, clearly reveling in the intensity and incisiveness they produced. The winds and brass were expertly managed and balanced throughout. We’ve come to associate the “Nimrod” Variation with memorial occasions, almost as much as Barber’s Adagio, but hearing that section in the context of the entire work significantly enhances its powers, and it’s a fact that this performance brought all of the enigmatic bits to nearly perfect clarity. At the end, the crowd was reluctant to let Schwarz and his players go.

There is no repeat of this program, but Solzhenitsyn remains in Greensboro through Monday, July 8, for chamber music at UNCG by Robert Schumann and, with two other distinguished keyboardists, by Mozart and Jennifer Higdon. For details, click here.