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Maestro José-Luis Novo chose a well-constructed, interesting, and unusual program that showed off the strengths of the young people of the Eastern Music Festival student orchestra, beginning with two works that are familiar by name and yet rare on concert programs, and concluding with a real barnburner. Novo led off with the orchestral suite from the comic opera Háry János by composer Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), the “other” major figure from Hungary to make a mark on Western music in the last century, along with his contemporary Béla Bartók (1881-1945), who is far better known. The two were personal friends.
The opera was premiered in 1926, and in various ways reflects the change in musical style, and in society, brought by the First World War. János Háry, as he might be called if he lived in the USA (normal order for names in Hungarian puts the surname first) is a folkloric figure, a sort of naïve superhero from the peasantry, a brother, perhaps for the Good Soldier Schweik from neighboring Bohemia. Thus folk and nationalistic idioms are found throughout (for example, the composer calls for a cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer, in the third movement of the suite, a peasant love song, heard on piano in the EMF performance), and the winds have an unusually prominent place in the scoring, with the second movement for winds and percussion alone (representing the musical clock in Vienna). The only movement where the strings can really sing out is the gypsy-style music of the fifth movement, where the original scoring also has the cimbalom leading the ensemble. Novo might have been considerably freer with the phrasing here in order to give some real paprika to the Hungarian flavor; fine work throughout by the winds, with a special tip of the hat to the expressive oboe.
Next was another folkloric work, Sensemayá, composed in 1937 by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940), and probably his best known work, based on a poem by Cuban Nicolás Guillén (nothing to do with pre-Colombian Mexican sacrifice, as stated by the program notes). The work builds obsessively to a final climax, with the entire work based on a septuple meter. Novo led the orchestra in a reading that was intensely rhythmic, clean, incisive, biting, with no loose edges, revealing a fine piece that should be heard more often.
After intermission we heard the familiar Pines of Rome (also from 1926) by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), a true work of genius that makes one yearn to hear the composer’s other works more frequently as well. Respighi has a really cinematic vision (before the advent of “movie music”), particularly in the way that the four movements are seamlessly woven together. The rapid motion of the climax of the first movement was a bit beyond the ensemble technically, so that the “jump cut” to the following adagio didn’t quite work. The third movement, depicting a romantic summer night, in the last moments before the dawn, is one of the most purely erotic moments in all of music, perfumed, transcendent, and it was beautifully rendered, with fine work from the solo clarinet. If only it could last forever….but the birdsong announcing the morning leads to the irresistible Roman march, which the audience rewarded with loud, long applause, and a standing ovation. Fine work by the student players of a festival which is one of the ornaments of culture in North Carolina.