Orchestral Music Review Print

Eastern Music Festival's 2006 Season Ends with Two Concerts on High Notes

July 29, 2006 - Greensboro, NC:

The last day of the Eastern Music Festival always ends with two concerts in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus. A matinee concert features both student orchestras in separate programs certain to show off the students' growth in virtuosity for an audience made up of parents, siblings, and assorted friends and relatives. The all-faculty Eastern Philharmonic, sometimes supplemented by star pupils, is featured in the evening concert in a program of major works and with a major guest soloist. This pattern remained true for the two concerts given on July 29.

With more than 200 students enrolled, the festival is able to field two substantial orchestras, both under the rubric "Festival Orchestra." (I preferred earlier years of the festival when one group was called the Guilford Symphony and the other, the Eastern Symphony.) The first stage full of student musicians – the place was packed – was under the baton of José-Luis Novo for two selections. Russian music lovers will remember the Five or the "Mighty Fist Full" and French music lovers will recall Les Six; both groups were dedicated to either nationalistic or aesthetic ideals. According to Steven Ledbetter's program notes, Blas Galindo (1910-93) was part of a "Group of Four," composers "who proposed to create a Mexican music derived from indigenous traditions." Galindo's ancestry claimed descent from the Huichol Indians. His Sones de Mariachi was composed to be part of a guest conducting stint in New York City in 1940 at the invitation of Carlos Chávez. The title led to false expectations. Galindo draws upon broader types of "street music" than the groups with guitars, violins, and trumpets suggested by "Mariachi." The music begins with lyrical strings above bass pizzicati, only later becoming wildly rhythmic, using percussion, woodwinds, and brass with alternating fast and slow sections. Novo secured tight sectional playing that was carefully balanced.

Novo and his eager student musicians then gave a fiery performance of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Whether it was crisply snapped fingers or plucked strings, the orchestra and its sections played as one, and the rhythms were exact, no matter the tempo. The lyrical "Somewhere" and lovers' "Meeting Scene" were given heart-achingly beautiful solos by both cello and viola principals. There was some terrific playing from the trombone section and the solo trumpet. The "Mambo," the "'Cool' Fugue," and the "Rumble" were terrific.

An entirely new set of student musicians were led by Scott Sandmeier in that old war-horse, Ravel's familiar orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Sandmeier paid close attention to dynamics, phrasing, and instrumental color. It was a treat to hear this work played by musicians for whom this score was fresh. The string players really dug in with their bows. Plucked strings were cleanly executed. Among the many fine section leaders' solos were those by the alto saxophone in "The Old Castle," the baritone tuba in "Bydlo," and the shrill jabbering trumpet in "Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle" section.

Gerard Schwarz led the professional musicians of the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra in a program of strong contrasts in the evening concert. The balanced classicism of Mozart was set against the sprawling romanticism of Mahler.

Schwarz spent much of his early conducting career as the director of the Mostly Mozart Festival during the summer season in New York City. This experience paid dividends in the polished and stylish playing his musicians gave him in two Mozart selections. Refined string playing and bubbling woodwinds characterized  Schwarz's interpretation of the Overture to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

Mozart's "Coronation" Concerto (No. 26, in D, K. 537) is the "odd man out" among the composer's late piano concertos. It was completed in February 1788 and played, with the composer at the keyboard, in Dresden, in April 1789. To ensure that no one filched the work, Mozart left extensive parts for the left hand out of the score. While he filled these in during his one performance, he never wrote them down. Several scholars think the existing completions of the left hand part were done by the publisher Johann Andre. Unlike Mozart's other late concertos, the thematic arrangement is not tightly constructed. Instead of the carefully balanced harmonic structure of the classical form, it emphasizes projecting themes. Piano Concerto No. 26 anticipates aspects of the romantic style. In his book The Classical Style, Charles Rosen speculates that this was why the 26th concerto was the 19th century's favorite Mozart keyboard concerto.

Elegance characterized the gorgeous performance given by Garrick Ohlsson, who was closely accompanied by Schwarz and the EMF faculty. Ohlsson's passagework was as refined as it was precise. The range of color and timbre he secured was a joy to hear. The orchestra followed the soloist's every move with the most carefully nuanced dynamics heard this season. Ohlsson's mastery of the big Romantic war-horses is well-known. This performance revealed what a fine classicist he is. During an earlier discussion session, Schwarz said that Ohlsson had wanted to do the "Coronation" Concerto as preparation for his later performance of the work as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival (which was broadcast by PBS on August 2).

A few top students joined their teachers to meet the demands of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor. Schwarz held tight reins during this sprawling work and chose tempos that kept the music moving forward. His interpretation was well within the current standard approach. Most unusual was his repositioning of Principal Horn Leslie Norton from the traditional horn section in the rear to just in front of the conductor's podium during the Scherzo. The unflappable Norton showed no effect from this spotlighting, playing with confidence and ideal sound and phrasing. Her location enhanced some distancing sound effects in the score such as those occasions when the solo horn part is echoed by a "pp" muted second horn. Principal Trumpet Mark Niehaus gave a masterful rendition of his prominent brass part. This was very satisfying performance that was rewarded with many "curtain calls" that in turn gave Schwarz the opportunity extensively to acknowledge the high-quality solo performances. Many listeners have voiced their opinion that this has been one of the best seasons of the Eastern Music Festival's forty-five years. We share that view. Bravo!