Orchestral Music Review

Fischer and Schwarz Crown a Successful EMF Season

July 30, 2005 - Greensboro, NC:

The final concert of the Eastern Music Festival, given in Dana Auditorium on July 30, was reportedly the sixth box office sellout of the season. It welcomed back an outstanding artist from last season and showcased the EMF Music Advisor in one of his strengths, the music of Shostakovich, as part of an all-Russian program.

The "Festival Coronation" March is one of two occasional pieces for which Tchaikovsky interrupted work on his opera Mazeppa in 1883. Written for the coronation of Tsar Alexander III, it has plenty of orchestral color and features both the Danish national hymn and the Russian national anthem, "God save the Tsar" (composed by Aleksei L'vov). The latter is instantly recognizable from its use in the "1812" Overture, a very much better piece of music. The orchestra and conductor Gerard Schwarz did all that could be done to make something of this leaden work....

Violinist Julia Fischer wowed attendees at last season's festival with outstanding performances of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Dvorák's Violin Concerto in e minor. Word of mouth led to her master class having standing room only earlier this season. Her take on the violinist's warhorse, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, had been eagerly anticipated. Schwarz and the players of the all-faculty Eastern Philharmonic provided a perfectly-balanced accompaniment that complimented Fischer's every move.

The late David Oistrakh is one of her models, so Fischer also takes a firm stance with little moving about on the stage. From her Guadagnini (1750) violin, she spun out a sound that was full and warm at all dynamic ranges. Her bowing seemed effortless, however rapid the notes. The most exposed high notes were exactly on pitch. While there was nothing radical about her interpretation, she conveyed the music with assurance and conviction beyond her age. She listens carefully to her orchestral colleagues and plays with the give-and-take of a seasoned chamber music player. The hall exploded with sustained applause, and Fischer responded with two encores that encapsulated her artistry, technical mastery, and depth of musicianship. Paganini's Caprice No. 24, in a minor, featured left hand pizzicatos, harmonics, and double-stopping over the course of eleven variations. Her playing of the Sarabande, from Bach's Partita No. 2 in d minor, seemed a timeless meditation with each seamless strand evoking a voice forming the polyphonic effect.

Because of the deadly tyranny of the Stalinist era, many works composed by Dmitri Shostakovich have multiple levels of meaning; there is a showy gloss on the surface, designed to get past the official ideologues, and a deeper level that is often at odds with the former. None better illustrates this than the composer's Symphony No. 5, Op. 47. Despite public raves, his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk drew the wrath of Stalin, leading to official condemnation for "formalism." His next work, the superb Symphony No. 4, was withdrawn during rehearsal and filed away until after Stalin's death. Completed in three months, the Symphony No. 5 ends very deliberately in a major key and was received enthusiastically by the public. The widely-accepted view of the time was that it ended in optimism and affirmation. Musicians close to the composer (including Mstislav Rostropovich) have taken another view. Partially as a result of Solomon Volkov's controversial Testimony, which allegedly recounts Shostakovich's reflections, other conductors, such as Leonard Bernstein, have come to share the view that the finale ends in pessimism. What had been thundering victory becomes ambiguous and ironical when taken slowly and hammered home brutally. During a wide-ranging "Musically Speaking" program earlier in the week, Gerard Schwarz explained how he had come to share this darker view of the piece.

All sections of the Eastern Philharmonic played at the top of their forms and with palpable intensity of emotions, instantly responding to every dynamic nuance or turn of phrase demanded by Schwarz. The strings dug in with their bows to produce dark and sonorous sounds. The woodwinds were strongly characterized, with low rasping bassoons, scornful clarinets, and piercing flutes and oboes. An orchestral piano helped re-enforce the rhythms. After a peak with snarling brass, the first movement grew hushed and ended with a fine solo by Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer. The sardonic second movement opened with leviathan-like low notes from the cellos, later joined by somber bassoons and contrabassoon. A variety of pizzicatos were immaculately executed. Among a number of chamber music-like episodes was a memorable duet between Multer and the plucked strings of the entire cello section. Some of the most forceful bowings occurred as the slow third movement opened with second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. Schwarz wove the sound texture with the widest range of dynamic nuances in this movement. Timpanist John Feddersen was outstanding in the thundering opening of the finale, as was the entire trombone section. During a number of rousing curtain calls, Schwarz recognized all the principal players and entire sections, especially the brasses, whose playing was outstanding.

Note: This concludes our coverage of the EMF this season. For other reviews, see our July 2005 archives.

Edited/corrected 2/11/06.