Dana Auditorium was packed for one of the most attractive concerts of this Eastern Music Festival season. Such turnouts in our state have been commonplace anytime pianist André Watts is announced as soloist. Music director Gerard Schwarz combined the Grieg Piano Concerto with a Sibelius rarity, a Prokofiev suite, and a significant world premiere by Richard Danielpour, commissioned for the festival.

Works by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) are too infrequently programmed in our state, so the scheduling of one of the composer’s real rarities, Night Ride and Sunrise Op.55, was all the more welcome. He composed Op. 55 between his work on the Third and Fourth Symphonies, and it is an example of an “emerging mysticism” and evocation of a stark nature that would be expanded in his remaining works. The piece abounds in eerie string tremolos, constantly modified and repeated fragments, layering and stratification of instrumental sections, shifts of musical focus between lines in the foreground and the background, and sudden huge swaths of sound (most frequently in the brass).

In Greg Carroll’s pre-concert lecture, he called Night Ride and Sunrise the Finnish Bolero, alluding to the extensive repetition of fragments in both Sibelius’s and Ravel’s works. This element was almost constantly heard as Schwarz led the all-professional Festival Orchestra in a dramatic and tightly focused performance. Players responded instantly to every sudden shift of dynamics or tempo. Woodwinds were strongly characterized and the brasses were brilliant. Sibelius’ myriad of string effects was beautifully executed.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) rates barely a footnote in some current music texts but his Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, was for many years one of the most popular of all piano concertos. Grieg is often called the” Chopin of the North,” and he was influenced by the model of Robert Schumann’s concerto in the same key, as well as some technical advice from Liszt. Its grace and beauty conceal elaborate and economical use of musical elements. Grieg often takes a modest sounding phrase and brings it back in a highlighted and prominent manner. The concerto opens as the soloist’s crashing chords and octaves take the instrument from its top range down to its lowest depth. Soft woodwinds introduce the serene main theme and it is taken up by the piano. The cello section introduces the drooping second theme and the piano boldly takes it up before the orchestra. An extraordinary, electrifying and extended cadenza comes near the movement’s end. Sweet muted strings open the slow movement. The piano enters with a theme of its own leading to trills, and languid arpeggios lead directly into the whirlwind finale built around the rhythm of a popular Norwegian folk-dance called the halling.

The decades have not diminished Watts’ chops. The virtuosity of his thundering opening was breathtaking and his wide dynamic range from ff to pp was a constant pleasure. His articulation in the fastest passages was superb, and the delicately nuanced poetry of the slow movement was a highlight of the performance. Schwarz and his musicians provided as fine an accompaniment as could be desired. Watts was rewarded with repeated curtain calls by the standing music lovers that ended only when he waved goodbye from between the strings.

This concert’s world premiere, A Prayer for Our Time by Richard Danielpour (1956), is the fruit of an exciting and impressive commission for ten works by American composers for the next ten seasons of the EMF. Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, founder and CEO of Greensboro’s Pace Communications and former ambassador to Finland, has established the series of commissions to honor friends and relatives. This work honors Mary V. Mochary, an attorney, former mayor of Montclair, N.J., and U.S. Department of State advisor. Musical director Schwarz has been a strong advocate and programmer of American music, and his leading of a 1988 premiere of a Danielpour work had been a turning point for the composer’s career. The composer accepted this commission on the condition he could write it for Schwarz and his son Julian who is the associate principal cellist of the Festival Orchestra.

A Prayer for Our Time is a 10-minute piece for cello and orchestra. It opens hushed and hymn-like with pp strings soon joined by delicate entries from a flute and harp. The cello enters singing a melancholy melody before beginning to exploit its full tonal range. Woodwinds, clarinet and oboe contribute along with the horn. Pizzicato strings accompany the cello’s next turn. Further highlights are another brief horn solo, a broad melody in the violins, and a particularly deep, rich cello solo, followed by a slowing to a quiet cadence.

Julian Schwarz was a deeply moving interpreter of the solo, playing with superb intonation and sense of musical flow and line. His palette of color and dynamic range were remarkable. Gerard Schwarz led a carefully judged performance with the balance between cellist and orchestra ideal. Strong supporting contributions came from concertmaster Multer, clarinetist Shannon Scott, oboist Randall Ellis, and Kevin Reid on horn.

Five excerpts from Suite No. 2 which Sergei Prokofiev arranged from his brash ballet Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 ended the concert with brilliant playing. The orchestration ranges from percussive and thundering to magically ethereal. Schwarz led a brilliant and fiery performance with strong contributions from every section of the orchestra.

Next year’s second McElveen-Hunter EMF premiere by an American composer will be by John Corigliano.