The word “symphony” has had a long evolution in the annals of music history and continues to this day to, in the concert world, be the apex of musical composition. Even when not specifically labeled as such, because of its enormous breadth some works are referred to as “symphonies.” In another fabulous concert, unique in both its programming and high level of performance, the Eastern Music Festival‘s “Festival Orchestra,” under the direction of Gerard Schwarz, presented an eclectic night of a mighty classic, a modern giant and a world premiere. It was a gala night at Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus in Greensboro.

David Diamond (1915-2005) is a hugely influential and prolific American composer, who, inexplicably, has never quite broken into the pantheon of American composers regularly performed and/or recorded on major labels. That is quite perplexing since his style, in general, is eminently accessible, richly harmonic and concise. If anything by him could be considered a “greatest hit,” it would most likely be his Symphony No. 4, completed in 1945. Premiered in 1948 with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the EMF performance had Schwarz conducting a work he is well familiar with, having recorded it with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for the Delos label in 1990. 

Clocking in at about seventeen minutes in three movements and employing the standard forms of a symphony from nearly any era, Diamond’s mid-twentieth century work could easily have been played and accepted one hundred years before that. There are greatly enlarged woodwind and brass sections, but for the most part they are not used to bombard you with volume and force, but to engage in sonorities and interplay only accessible with numerous players. For those who love romanticism in music (forget about the “neo-” prefix), this is an ideal work to get to know: beautiful melodies, lush orchestration, and, perhaps best of all, brief and to the point.

For those who liked Diamond’s 4th Symphony, what was to come next was in many ways a continuation.  As part of a 10-year commission project, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, in collaboration with the Eastern Music Festival, commissioned a new symphony from Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961). In addition to this world premiere also being Liebermann’s Symphony No. 4, it is also quite stylistically similar to Diamond’s – not at all surprising since Liebermann studied with Diamond. With the composer in attendance and its content unknown at the time the programs were printed, this was indeed an exciting moment.

Although there are at least four distinct sections, this symphony is not broken down into movements and is played continuously. Despite that, it is quite substantial both in length and variety. It begins with a slow, eerie celeste/triangle duo that eventually leads into a spacious, far-away-sounding episode reminiscent of sections from Holst’s The Planets. (Who hasn’t borrowed from that work!) That spell is broken as the trumpet has a turn for a mini-concerto tinged with a Dixieland feel. Later on the entire orchestra gets to show off their prodigious technique with a fugue that has a very long subject and is insanely fast. This reminded me a bit of the fugue in Alan Hovhaness‘ “Mysterious Mountain.”  The symphony ended where it began, with a return of the feeling of endlessness and infinity – probably a coincidence, but the recent fly-by of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft stuck in my mind. Despite numerous attempts by Schwarz to bring the composer on stage, he chose to remain with the audience as they gave him a thunderous ovation. 

Some works of art are so monumental and expansive that they obliterate the language used to describe them. Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat is such a creation. Everything about this music is larger-than-life: length, four movements, orchestration, and, most of all, the majestic and passionate writing. Oh yes, and there’s the matter of the unsurpassed technical and interpretive challenges for the piano soloist. In a performance for the ages – including recordings from any era – Andre Watts demonstrated a mastery of technique that is on par with any of the numerous young lions of the piano world, with a subtlety of interpretation, sumptuous tone and, when needed, an arsenal of ferocious power.

The opening is one of the most exposed and beautiful horn solos that probably rates the highest level of anxiety possible. Principal Kevin Reid nailed it with perfect intonation, tone, and beautiful phrasing. The piano soloist has some gentle arpeggios before he gets an early break while the orchestra presents most of the first movement themes. The first movement is enormous in both length and energy expended, but there is not much let up in the second movement, a fierce “scherzo” in everything but name. Brahms lets another solo instrument shine in the opening of the third movement in one of the most famous and lush cello solos in the entire orchestral canon, sensitively played by principal Neal Cary.

Watts is an old school player (meant admirably) in that he mostly lets his fingers do the talking. This concerto is a field day for those players who sometimes appear to choreograph their performance, but Watts, although certainly not dispassionate, eschews ostentatiousness.

And now a word about Maestro Schwarz: It is a rare conductor that conveys the emotion, passion and inner life of the music, and still continues to do the basic work of his profession – show the beat and cue entrances. He clearly does both, thereby a constant reliable gauge for the interpretation and the mechanics. That, in large part, is why the already hugely talented members of this orchestra sound  so superb under Schwarz’s leadership. Tonight’s concert was a perfect example of musician, conductor, composer and soloist coming together so seamlessly, and, maybe most importantly, the realization that there will continue to be great new music created.