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While a heat wave and threats of thunderstorms kept some concert-goers at home, those who braved the weather to attend the Eastern Music Festival’s student orchestra concert in Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College were treated to powerful performances of three great pieces of music, all written within the last hundred years.
The concert opened with Three Latin-American Dances by American-born composer, Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972). According to the brief biography G. Shirmer publishes, “born in Berkeley, California, to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Inspired by the works of Bela Bartók and Alberto Ginastera, Frank is something of a musical anthropologist… [and] has travelled extensively throughout South America.”
The first (“Jungle Jaunt”) and last (“Mestizo Waltz”) dances were very rhythmic and brilliantly orchestrated, making much use of various percussion instruments, including a row of pitched woodblocks. The most interesting movement was the longer middle movement, “Highland Harawi,” a plaintive and soulful slow-moving melody with echo effects which built through parallel fifths to a tempestuous whirling of trills and rain-stick, punctuated by thunder, subsiding and eventually yielding to a shortened version of the opening. Although the brevity of the last “Waltz” didn’t seem to balance the lengthy “Harawi,” I was nonetheless carried away by the ebullient energy of Ms. Frank’s work. I look forward to hearing more from her.
Mendelssohn wrote a pair, and Milhaud, Stravinsky and Bartók each wrote one, but perhaps with the exception of Mozart’s singleton, the Concerto for Two Pianos by the sophisticated French composer, Francis Poulenc, is one of the best known of this relatively rare genre. Making the most of the composer’s dualistic personality (a spiritual side with an impish rascal nature), this concerto moves from an almost martial style early in the first movement and a carnivalesque Finale to an undisguised adulation of Mozartean simplicity in the middle Larghetto. Faculty members Yoshikazu Nagai and Gideon Rubin played the solo piano parts with brilliant technique and quirky humor, making the most of the sudden silences which end the first movement and prepare the second.
The second half of the concert was devoted to one of the most important works of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky’ seminal Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), a ballet depicting rites preceding the pagan sacrifice of a virgin to the deities of spring. The first performance (1913) caused such a disturbance in the theater that the choreographer, Nijinsky, had to shout the beat to the dancers who could no longer hear the orchestra. A large part of the scandal was caused by the cloaks and unrevealing costumes worn by the dancers, another part by the unusual and unconventional dance itself. And certainly, Stravinsky’s scandalously modern score had its share in provoking the public ire. I find it important to remember that this music was the basis for a ballet, and is at its best combined with the visual element. (The Joffrey Ballet’s 2002 revival of the original production is available on YouTube and adjacent sites. A more recent version  by Maurice Béjart and Ballet du XXième Siècle is also available there.)
There were too many outstanding solos to mention them all – the percussion section, especially the tympani, and the woodwinds, notably the high piccolo clarinet (in “D”) were brilliant. The orchestra was huge – nine horns, five flutes, five oboes, etc. Wow! It will be years before I will get so excited by a student performance.
The musical score is one of the most difficult works in the whole repertory and it is a testament to the superb quality of the students of the Eastern Music Festival that Le Sacre would even be attempted. The music is difficult – impossibly high for horns and bassoons, chromatic scales at the bottom of the English horn range, and difficulties in counting for everyone. Anybody can make a mistake, and what typifies a live performance is that mistakes do happen. But there is one person who may not make a mistake: the conductor. Maestro José-Luis Novo was perfection itself – clear and precise, not only holding the orchestra together, but leading the music to and from the many climaxes and creating a shape from the procession of tableaux and episodes. Bravo Maestro!