Orchestral Music Review Print

At the EMF: An Eclectic and Enterprising Student Orchestra Concert

July 8, 2005 - Greensboro, NC:

Programming for the professional and student orchestras at the Eastern Music Festival has steered away from old chestnuts in favor of neglected works that are strongly scored. On July 8, a large audience in Dana Auditorium heard well-executed performances by the second of two all-student ensembles, both of which are called "Festival Orchestra." In years past, one student orchestra was called the Guilford Symphony and the other, the Eastern Symphony. There are enough student musicians to field two orchestras with some overlap in membership. Scott Sandmeier conducted the performance, securing tight ensemble with a full string sound, good balances among the sections, and expressive use of dynamics. His interpretations were solid, well-considered, and within established performance standards.

John Adams' opera Nixon in China (1987) has been taken up by a number of opera houses, and music extracted from it has gotten even wider exposure in concerts. "The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra)" is dominated by strong rhythms. In succinct program notes, Steven Ledbetter describes this excerpt as "a modern composer's idea of a Hollywood foxtrot from... seventy years ago." Elements of Adams' "minimalist" style are present: "shifting meters over pulsing rhythms, simple melodic lines overlaid into complex patterns, and bright orchestral sonorities." The musicians sustained the repetitive patterns flawlessly and kept up with all the subtle shifts while playing as one.

With equal aplomb, the young musicians took up the robust and vigorous classical style of Joseph Haydn. The scoring of the Trumpet Concerto in E-flat, H.VIIe:1, has all the rich inventiveness of the twelve London Symphonies. Sandmeier balanced the orchestra beautifully with soloist Mark Gould, former Principal Trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera and currently on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. Gould was a winning soloist, projecting warm tone and expressive lines, and for the most part his intonation was fine. Recordings have given audiences excessive expectations for error-free playing. There was one missed note and two or three "teetering" misses that were followed by graceful recovery. His hearty view of the concerto as a whole was more important than these few slips.

Enjoyment of the Adams piece and the first two movements of the Haydn were sorely tried by the single worst case in memory of sustained and uninterrupted hearing aid feedback. Friends up in the back mezzanine could hear it, too, as could those in the center and left orchestra. The source was in the lower third of the auditorium, on the right. Finally one patron slipped from his aisle seat and reported the matter to EMF staff in the lobby; the staff then spotted the problem. Other patrons told me this has been an intermittent problem at earlier concerts, from the same general area. Tickets are too expensive to tolerate noisy distractions. (So far this season, cell phones seem to have been properly silenced.)

A spectacular performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6, Op. 54, ended the concert. During the Stalin era, the composer kept a small bag packed, expecting the dreaded knock on the door in the night that would lead to imprisonment or death in the gulags. The success of the Fifth Symphony returned him to the tyrannical system's "good graces," and Shostakovich announced that his next symphonic work would be a tribute to Lenin, complete with choruses, but finding himself unready for such an undertaking, he opted for a purely orchestral work. Both the state and the public received the Sixth Symphony coolly.

Instead of being a huge triumphant affirmation of communism, it is an abstract piece with long arching melodies in the slow movement and witty scoring sometimes reminiscent of opera buffo or vaudeville in the two faster movements. Like Mahler, to whom the Russian composer can be seen as a successor, large stretches of the score have a chamber-music-like delicacy, and on this occasion those sections benefited from many stunningly-played solo lines or small ensembles involving, variously, piccolo, oboe, English horn, trumpet, a sassy clarinet, and an uninhibited timpanist. When called for, the strings played with a deep and rich sonority, and the brass sections – most especially the horns – played with a security beyond their years.

For a list of the EMF's concerts, click here [inactive 11/05].