A gigantic orchestra of talented and passionate young musicians stood grinning at the end of this concert – they had just played a nearly flawless performance of one of music's most difficult works, Igor Stravinsky's monumental Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring) – and they deserved to grin! Under the impeccable direction of resident conductor José-Luis Novo, the students in this orchestra (two full-sized student orchestras play each week in addition to the professional Festival Orchestra, which plays concerts each Saturday night) were playing their first full concert of this season of the Eastern Music Festival.
The program began tamely with a performance of J.S. Bach's Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, S.1043. A prize-winning student, Jackie Tang Yu Hang, 24, from Hong Kong, played one of the solo parts, while the concertmaster of the Festival Orchestra, Jeffrey Mutter, played the other. In this straight-forward performance, both soloists complemented each other admirably and stylistically. I regret that the current practice seems to discourage flexibility of tempo – having been brought up on the version of the Bach Double recorded by young Yehudi Menuhin with his teacher Georges Enesco, I longed for more expressivity in the Largo second movement.
The reputation of Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) as a composer rests chiefly on the sensational orchestral work, Sensemayá, inspired by the poem of the same name, written by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, describing the ritual sacrifice of a snake to the gods. The work lasts only seven minutes and is written almost exclusively in measures of 7 – 7 eighths (7/8), mostly, but with intermittent measures of 7 sixteenths (7/16) towards the end of the raucous, rhythmic rant. The orchestra fairly rocked to the rhythm and the audience was delighted by the primitive dissonance and hypnotic beat of the work. Timpanist Taylor Lents, 19, from Blue Ridge, GA, was outstanding in this and in the rest of the demanding concert.
The Four Dances from the ballet Estancias by Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) are this Argentine composer's most popular works; like most of his compositions, they were deeply influenced by Argentine folk music. The second, Danza del trigo (Wheat Dance), featured a lovely flute solo by Megan Torti. The Danza Finale: Malambo brought down the house with its insistent fast rhythmic beat. Traditionally danced by gauchos, it features rapid footwork, not unlike tap-dancing in cowboy boots!
After intermission, we listened to one of the defining works of the 20th century, Le sacre du printemps, a ballet by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), divided into two parts, and written for the 1913 season of Les Ballets Russes in Paris. The opening night was a scandal from start to finish. Camille Saint-Saëns exclaimed loudly about the grotesque high bassoon solo at the beginning and left the hall. The famously beautiful bodies of the Russian dancers were draped from neck to knee in heavy unrevealing costumes. The dancers known for leaps and entrechats stomped on the floor to music that seemed to replace melody with rhythm and beauty with dissonance. Vaslav Nijinsky was on stage counting loudly so the dancers could keep their places with an orchestra no one could hear over the anger of the audience. (Interested readers can see a reconstruction of the original choreography by the Joffrey Ballet from 1987.)
Fortunately, the score has suffered less than the choreography, and the music is performed by orchestras the world over. The EMF student orchestra played the difficult rhythms and tricky meter changes like professionals although I would wager that they were all on their maiden voyage with Sacre. Special kudos to the principal horn and to the alto flute for outstanding solo work. And for the entire orchestra, future excursions into this repertory will be smooth sailing for these adepts!