Abandoning the old designations of "Guilford" and "Eastern" Symphonies, both student orchestras at the Eastern Music Festival are called simply "Festival Orchestra." There are enough students to field two full orchestras with nearly a dozen musicians in all the string sections except for double basses. We attended both the July 8 and 9 concerts held in Dana Auditorium on the bucolic campus of Guilford College. Both orchestras' string sections played with remarkable unanimity, precise ensemble, and glowing tone. Quick changes of rhythm and dynamics went smoothly. The woodwinds and brass were often equally adept.
My familiarity with Hyperion Records' exploration of 19th-century Romantic violin literature made the July 8 program of Chausson and Hubay irresistible. Guest violinist Charles Castleman was a suave and cultured soloist with a refined tone and fastidious bowing technique. Ernest Chausson's "Poéme," Op. 25, is well known. Much of it has a mood of dreamy sweetness.
There was a change in the program involving selections from Jenö Hubay's Scènes de la Csàrda; No. 5, "Hullámzó Balaton," Op. 33, was followed by the showier No. 4, "Hejre Kati," Op. 32. In No. 5, Castleman spun a sweet melody and produced a long trill as part of the cadenza. His playing of No. 4 exhibited agile bowing and fingering and fireworks aplenty. Conductor José-Luis Novo kept the orchestra in perfect balance, using a wide range of quieter dynamics.
Novo brought out the full Spanish flavor of Emmanuel Chabrier's "Rhapsody España," with alert rhythms and careful attention to orchestral color. There were memorable solos from Jose-Axel Rivera, bassoon, and John Porter, trombone along with horn trills by Cassie Keys and some fine low notes from Kyra Sovronsky, trumpet.
The students played their hearts out for Novo in a riveting reading of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 ("Pathètique"). Solo bassoonist Patrick Johnson Whitty was outstanding, as were the solid rhythms of the timpanist. The viola section had a rich warm tone.
The novelty on conductor Scott Sandmeier's July 9 program was Franz Joseph Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat, H.I:105, for violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon. Although the composer treats the soloists as a part of the entire orchestral fabric, they repeatedly become more prominent, then recede, as the work progresses. The quality of the music makes the give-and-take among the soloists much more engaging than is usually the case in works of this genre.
The conductor kept his reduced orchestra balanced with his team of faculty soloists: violinist Lisa Sutton, oboist Eric Olson and bassoonist Susan Heineman. They were joined by David Hardy, a former EMF student who is Principal Cello of the National Symphony. He was at the EMF to give a masterclass.
Lockstep ensemble and ripe string tone were the first things to arrest the ears in the "Russian Easter" Overture, Op. 36, by Rimsky-Korsakov, which opened the concert. The woodwinds and brass were equally alert, and there was a deeply sonorous trombone solo, played by Gil Cruz. My preoccupation with the low strings caused me to miss a "mini-drama": friends in the balcony reported that, during a solo, Concertmistress Barbara Kaessler broke a string, and she instantly switched violins with her stand-partner. Her robust tone was marvelous, and she played with great expression while eschewing sentimentality.
These fine performances were topped by Sandmeier's electrifying presentation of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9 in E-flat, Op. 70. The symphony is by turns jaunty and sardonic. Every musician played with total commitment and considerable virtuosity. Among the large number of players acknowledged after the concert were the Concertmistress and Todd Cope, clarinet, Allison Cayne, oboe, Kristen Rea, horn, Karin Bliznik, trumpet, Robert Donnelly, trombone, and Matthew Wardell, timpani.