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Orchestral Music Review Print

Melodious Mendelssohn and Massive Mahler - & More

July 11, 2009 - Greensboro, NC:

What expectations should one have when a superstar such as violinist Sarah Chang joins a virtuoso band such as the Eastern Festival Orchestra (the faculty ensemble at the Eastern Music Festival) to play one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire? Excitement? Most definitely. A deep understanding of the music? Absolutely. A performance that will last in memory of the audience long after the performance has passed? Count on it! Perfection? Probably not.

So I had really high expectations for Saturday night’s performance, as did everyone in the sold-out Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus. Chang did not disappoint. Not only was her sound stunning, but her dress was something to behold as well.

Chang’s violin timbre is unique — different, of course, from the orchestra’s string section — capable of wonderful nuance, not particularly warm, but perfect for beautiful singing.  And that was the tone that began the Mendelssohn.

Throughout this movement, EMF Music Director Gerard Schwarz’s conducting was closely attuned to the violinist; indeed, sometimes it seemed that she was dancing with him as they worked in tandem. Speaking of dancing — Chang is a physical player, with dramatic bowing, arching back for drama, and she feels completely comfortable kicking up her floor-length dress to help her body engage in the music.

The virtuosic cadenza’s fireworks were impressive — double and triple stops, harmonics, the works. One of the magnificent traits of this 28-year old’s playing is her uncanny ability to couple extreme passion with elasticity.

The second movement is pure lyricism, and her soulful playing was beautiful. In one passage she displayed the softest of sound, but one that carried to the back of the hall. Schwarz made sure that the EFO matched her pianissimo and intensity. Amazing.

It was also in this movement that Chang pushed the tempo forward, once leaving the wind section a half step behind, so noticeable was the misstep that she actually turned to look at them while playing.

After a delicate short introduction, the third movement begins with a couple of back-and-forths between soloist and orchestra, and Chang’s solo was as thin and delicate as one can imagine. This is a fun, elf-like dance movement, and the soloist fairly flew, and some resultant ensemble problems ensued. But that’s the price of playing with flair, energy and passion. And at in the end, that’s why recordings cannot compare with good live performances. The audience erupted in delight, and forced the violinist to return to the stage for umpteen curtain calls.

One more impressive trait of this superstar is her graciousness. That was evident in her turning to the orchestra during the thunderous applause as well as signing innumerable programs and CDs presented by her adoring fans, and having her picture taken with anyone who had a camera, both during intermission and after the entire concert concluded.

Mahler’s huge and sprawling 5-movement Seventh Symphony, also in E Minor, filled up the rest of the evening. This is a wild work that doesn’t really tell a story in a programmatic sense. It is scored for a huge orchestra comprised of several different kinds of horns, a couple of harps, a large battery of percussion instruments including cow bells, and even guitar and mandolin! It is a test of endurance for the audience to stay focused throughout the 80-minute work. But as difficult as it is for the listener, it is even more so for the musicians who must maintain concentration and intensity throughout. And Schwarz and company did just that.

The first movement is chock-full of tunes and sudden mood changes. In a sense it is bizarre and fragmented with seemingly unrelated ideas forced together. It is in a sense, neurotic. Schwarz kept the conducting reins tight and was able to keep the tension taut. 

The other four movements are no less unique — two are entitled “Night Music” (one supposes that gives rise to the symphony’s subtitle, “Song of the Night”), a fiendish and Halloween-esque scherzo in the middle and a lengthy finale.  Solos abound; concertmaster Jeffrey Multer did yeoman’s work in many of the movements as did the principal chairs of all of the sections.  The climaxes were powerful, the delicate passages dainty.

Mahler supposedly once said that a symphony “should take in the whole world.” And this symphony does indeed do that — the beauty, the surprises, the unexpected juxtapositions, gloom and sadness; one could argue that it represents the combination of order and randomness that is life.

And since the following happened on the same occasion, here's a (rather substantial) footnote to this review, provided by the EMF:


Greensboro, NC: In the opening to an exciting evening filled with brilliant music, last Saturday July 11, 2009 in Dana Auditorium at Guilford College, Mayor Yvonne Johnson honored Maestro Gerard Schwarz for his active leadership in educational and musical endeavors in the city of Greensboro. The symbolic recognition included a brief speech highlighting Maestro Schwarz’s reputation and outstanding achievements as a conductor, followed by the traditional handing-over of the key to the city.

Preceding the Eastern Festival Orchestra’s concert, Mayor Johnson and her husband Walter took the stage to recognize Schwarz as the artistic figure that heads the organization’s musical force. Mayor Johnson stated that: “Every day, I witness people who make a difference in our community. In recent years, I have taken note of Maestro Schwarz who has fostered a love of classical music in Greensboro through his leadership at EMF.” Strongly involved with EMF, Mayor Johnson’s relationship with the festival goes back to the 1980s when her husband participated as a member of the Board. Since then, both of them have developed a special bond with the organization that lasts to this day.

As Music Director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra since 1985, Maestro Schwarz has a history of exceptional accomplishments as a renowned classical conductor. His contributions to the Eastern Music Festival have pioneered the musical and artistic growth of the community, gaining the attention of distinguished national and international names in the classical world. In addition, EMF has further reached the support of local music followers under his artistic leadership.

When the key was presented to Maestro Schwarz, Mayor Johnson remarked: “Tonight, I present the Key to Our City to honor you and your artistic achievements and contributions to Greensboro. Your stellar reputation brings international recognition to our City, and we thank you for the tremendous impact you have had on the arts and our residents.” Maestro Gerard Schwarz gladly accepted the recognition, making mention to the audience of the rich cultural life in the city, as well as his commitment to the festival and the community of Greensboro.

Mr. Schwarz has been the recipient of numerous accolades and awards:
• Under his leadership, the Seattle Symphony was recognized nationally for its adventurous programming in 1996 and 2004, when it received the First Place Award for Programming of Contemporary Music from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).
• In May 2002, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) recognized Gerard Schwarz as a champion of American music and the music of our time.
• In 1994 he was honored as Conductor of the Year by Musical America International Directory of the Performing Arts, the first American to receive this award.
• Honored last October with the 2009 Seattle-King County First Citizen Award

Born to Viennese parents, EMF music director Gerard Schwarz has served as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s music director since 1985. He is a recipient of the Ditson Conductor’s award from Columbia University and was the first American to be named Conductor of the Year by Musical America. He holds numerous honorary doctorates, including ones from The Juilliard School, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle University, University of Puget Sound, and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Recent highlights for Maestro Schwarz include two consecutive Emmy Awards in 2007 and 2008 for televised performances with Seattle Symphony; leading Seattle Symphony in its recent Southern California Tour; and conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the 600-member community orchestra and chorus for His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the recent visit to Seattle sponsored by Seeds of Compassion.

Maestro Schwarz has received 12 GRAMMY® nominations, six ASCAP awards, and numerous Stereo Review and Ovation awards. In June 2007, he received an Emmy for his performance with Seattle Symphony of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. Moreover, Maestro Schwarz won critical acclaim that season for his remarkable collaboration with Dale Chihuly to present Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. His extensive discography of some 250 releases showcases his collaborations with some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, including The Philadelphia Orchestra; the Tokyo, Czech and Royal Liverpool philharmonics; the London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra National de France and Berlin Radio Symphony; the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; and the New York Chamber and Seattle symphonies. Soon to be released are works by Mahler, Arthur Foote, Bright Sheng, and Samuel Jones, as well as Deems Taylor’s Peter Ibbetson and the first complete recording of Kurt Weill's Eternal Road.

In addition to his leadership at Eastern Music Festival, Maestro Schwarz has also served as music director of New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and New York Chamber Symphony, as well as artistic advisor to Tokyu Bunkamura's Orchard Hall.