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With blazing brass (both on-stage and off), wailing winds, sawing strings, five fully employed percussionists, and a final grand sweep, Maestro Gerard Schwarz closed out the 62nd season of the Eastern Music Festival Saturday night in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus. The brilliant conclusion was the 1923-24 Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) by Otto Respighi (Italy, 1879-1936). The almost full house roared its approval with non-stop standing ovations for the next five minutes.
The four-section composition is written for a large orchestra, including organ, piano, celesta, and harp (only the organ was missing) as well as a slew of percussion instruments. The raucous opening, "I pini di Villa Borghese" (The Pines of the Villa Borghese), depicts the gardens at the villa with children playing. "Pini presso una catacomba" (Pines Near a Catacomb) is a solemn affair, a dirge. "I pini del Gianicolo" (The Pines of the Janiculum) paints the "eighth hill of Rome," the Gianicolo Hill. This nocturne is the most impressionistic movement, with lush orchestration. Although the composer calls for a specific recording of a nightingale to be played, this performance used a recording of multitudinous birds. The final "I pini della Via Appia" (The Pines of the Appian Way) represents the past grandeur of the great Roman empire, and with a slowly building crescendo throughout, the end proclaims the glories that were once Rome.
The Eastern Festival Players' execution of this work was remarkable. Many individual solos were heard from all sections, cleanly and clearly played. Schwarz's conducting was, by turns, energetic, gentle, subtle, and fully bombastic in the last measures.
The evening began with another orchestral gem, La Mer (The Sea) by the composer who "invented" impressionism, Claude Debussy (France, 1862-1918). Schwarz's leadership evoked the moods and emotions inherent in the score throughout the three movements: "De l'aube à midi sur la mer" (From Dawn to Noon on the Sea), "Jeux des vagues" (Play of the Waves), and "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" (Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea).
This work is also written for a large orchestra, again with many solo lines colorfully played by violin, cello, flute, clarinet, oboe . . . the list goes on. Schwarz's close attention to dynamics, from almost imperceptible pianissimos to overwhelming fortissimos, brought the score alive. Although written more than a century ago (in 1903-05), the work, when performed by a great orchestra such as the EFO, and directed by such a committed conductor, sounds completely modern.
Sandwiched between these two audience favorites were two magnificent performances of works for piano: Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra by Jessie Montgomery (U.S., b. 1981) and Piano Concerto in A, BWV 1055 by J.S. Bach (Germany, 1685-1750). The soloist was Awadagin Pratt, winner of the 1992 Naumburg International Piano Competition as well as numerous other awards. He currently is Professor of Piano at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. He has also served on the piano faculty at EMF in the past.
Montgomery was named Composer of the Year by Musical America in 2023 and her 2022 Rounds was commissioned by the Art of the Piano Foundation and a consortium of nine American orchestras; it was written for Awadagin Pratt. She also credits conversations with Pratt as part of the inspiration in writing the piece.
Pratt is a strong, athletic performer—one who takes command of the piano. That was evident in the opening repetitive piano part, which was powerfully presented. The composition is minimalist in terms of using certain materials over and over again, although not with the pulsating rhythm often associated with minimalism. To this listener, this is a plus, as one clearly hears structural recurrences, which help lend unity to the disparate parts. The piece is fun to see live. Several times Pratt was called upon to pluck strings inside the piano. He also performed several glissandi both on the keyboard and inside as well.
Also, in the first part of the 13-minute piece, sturdy chordal sections are heard; the heavenly, dreamy middle section is a gorgeous reprieve. But the drama of the opening returns full force, with the piano part virtuosic to the max. The string orchestra, often performing motives presented earlier by the piano, serves as a kind of mirror or sometimes as a pillow, cushioning the piano part. Schwarz adeptly kept the forces together, sometimes gently, sometime forcefully.
The Bach concerto served as a perfect foil to the 21st-century Rounds. However, this was clearly a 21st-century take on this Baroque piece. It was obvious that Pratt was the driving force of the three-movement work, with Schwarz conducting in as gentle and graceful style as I have witnessed. While the reading of the piece may have not been to everyone's liking, it was undeniably a commanding and committed performance.
A dazzling reading of the 1908 Scherzo fantastique, op. 3 by Igor Stravinsky (Russia, 1882-1971), followed the intermission. This is an incredibly vibrant score for a huge orchestra including three flutes and clarinets, a bass clarinet and contrabassoon, celesta and three (!) harps.
There is a literary work behind the piece: "The Life of Bees" by Maurice Maeterlinck (Belgium, 1862-1949). The outer sections depict the busy beehive while the inner section is more relaxed, representing the queen bee's search for a conjugal partner. The EFO's performance was radiant, full of life and dynamism.
Although this year's Eastern Music Festival has come to a close, Triad audiences can look forward to the next season of EMF, when the faculty and students once again come to the Guilford College campus to begin preparing for another five weeks of outstanding music making.