Music Review

Eastern Music Festival Overview of Week 3

July 21, 2001 - Greensboro, NC:

Monday, July 16. "An Evening with Mark O'Connor" (off-series)

EMF President and CEO Thomas Philion and Artistic Director André-Michel Schub have this season introduced many innovative changes in an attempt to expand the audience. Scheduling "An Evening with Mark O'Connor" was one of these. Because all I had to go on was having heard Yo-Yo Ma play O'Connor's Appalachian Waltz as an encore following an all-Bach concert at UNC last spring, I hardly knew what to expect. At the time, a friend and I wondered why it was called a waltz since we were unable to detect a standard waltz beat.

The artist's broad background was summarized in a program insert that stated, "A product of America's rich rural tradition, Mr. O'Connor's journey began at the feet of violin masters--Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson and French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. All along the way, between these two marvelous extremes, Mark O'Connor absorbed knowledge and influence from a multitude of musical styles and genres. Now, at age 39, he has melded and shaped these influences into a new American classical music."

He easily held the Dana Auditorium stage with only two props--a plush easy chair on one side and a simple wooden one on the other. He tended to play extended sets of excerpts of his compositions that reflect different aspects of his stylistic growth. The first half of the concert featured works from folk sources and pieces from the PBS series "Liberty," which tried to recreate early colonial popular music. I was intrigued by a solo excerpt from his First Violin Concerto. In all, O'Connor exhibited excellent technical flair and unexpected precision.

A highlight of the second half was a spectacular demonstration of violin technique in his Caprice No. 3. Double stops, triple stops, all sorts of tricky, rapid bowings--it had everything! He also tried his hand at free improvisation on "The Orange Blossom Special"--the theme was shouted from the audience--that went rapidly far afield. His standing ovation was well earned. All of his numbers would have been worthy of Paganini.

From the stage he announced that his fall tour would include his new Fourth Violin Concerto. Fans might want to note that East Carolina University's S. Rudolf Alexander Performing Arts Series will feature O'Connor and the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra on Thursday, October 25. Additional information will be posted elsewhere at this site soon.

Tuesday, July 17. "Mozart Marathon"

A fairly large audience showed up for EMF's midweek Mozart Marathon on July 17. The concert began at 7:30 p.m. with a thirty-minute sampler of student chamber musicians. Easily the best was the piano four hands team of Nathalie Erlich and John Boonenberg who were excellent in their assured performance of Mozart's Sonata in D, K.381. Two separate ensembles essayed single movements from the Quartet in D, K.575, and the Quintet in G Minor, K.516. Both groups showed promise but their intentions were sometimes better than their intonation.

The formal concert began with one of Mozart's finest works for winds, the Serenade No. 12 in C Minor, K.488, played by oboists Eric Olson and Susan Eischeid, clarinetists Shannon Scott and Judith Donaldson, bassoonists Cedric Coleman and Carla Ekholm, and hornists Kevin Kozak and Amy Handelman. Balance and ensemble were very good and the sound was well blended. The dialogue between the oboe and clarinet in the Andante was memorable, and there was some wonderful horn playing in the finale, but I suspect that it might have been better if heard from the balcony, for this sort of music is best audited at a good distance from the stage--or outdoors.

Next came a satisfying performance of Mozart's great Quintet in C for Strings, given by violinists John Fadial (the GSO's Concertmaster) and Kristy Barnett Green, violists Daniel Reinker and Suzanne Rousso, and cellist Anthony Arnone. Balances were well judged and the phrasing was delightful.

Many people left at intermission, perhaps discouraged by the accurately-predicted 11:00 p.m. end of the Marathon. They missed a truly sparkling performance of a reduced-instrument version of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 13 in C. Fortepianist Andrew Willis was magnificent, and because this reading came after the intermission, the 18th-century-style strings' diminished volume and brilliance was somewhat less noticeable than might otherwise have been the case. Even so, this rendition would have made a better impression in a hall seating 500 or less. The players were violinist Patricia Ahern and Ariadna Bazarnik-Ilika, violists Paige Riggs, and cellist Sarah Cote. The lower strings projected fuller tone than the violins, which sounded much smaller than their modern counterparts. The interplay between the strings and the fortepiano was a constant delight. Willis' articulations of rapid passages were models of classical style.

The Serenade in G, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," brought the Marathon to a tuneful conclusion. This was played by violinists Paul Primus and Jennifer Richard, violists Ellen Caruso-Olson, cellist Pablo Mahave-Veglia, and bassist Don-Michael Hill. I don't think that I have ever heard a bad performance of the piece and this reading was downright vivacious.

Thursday, July 19. Eastern Symphony Orchestra

The July 19 concert by the Eastern Symphony Orchestra, a student ensemble, featured the popular pianist James Giles, a High Point native, in two sharply contrasted works. The ESO was under the able direction of Scott Sandmeier. Mozart's Concert-Rondo in D, was composed as a substitute movement for the more contrapuntal and original finale of the Fifth Piano Concerto when Mozart took that work to Vienna. Called a Rondo, it is really a theme with variations. The winds dominated the orchestral introduction before the piano entered with a catchy and intriguing theme. There was a nice dialogue between the piano and the woodwinds. Giles' beautifully executed trills preceded the return of the theme in the horns. A lovely languid solo for the piano came before the brisk conclusion.

Giles' pianism was a model of clarity in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1. The balance between the orchestra and piano was generally fine except in the opening Allegro, where the piano was almost covered briefly. Prokofiev's piano writing is both percussive and pointillist. I savored the elaborate slow piano part with trills in the Andante, which also had a fine muted trumpet part. Plenty of pizzicato strings and horns calls were on tap in the bracing, fast finale. An extended cadenza for piano solo allowed Giles an opportunity to display of his brilliant technique.

The concert ended with a good performance of Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 1. The cool orchestral sound of Sibelius is the perfect antidote to hot summer nights. The performance had plenty of sweep and built to a stirring finish. The massed ppp string tremolos were excellent. The cellos had a warm rich sound, and there was a gorgeous cello solo in the highest register in the second movement; in the Scherzo there was a delicious low clarinet trill. The timpanist was superb throughout, and the brasses were remarkably good. To those who, based on past experience, have come to perceive professional horn playing in this region as something akin to Russian roulette, the standards achieved by these student horn players seemed miraculous.

Friday, July 20. Guilford Symphony Orchestra

On July 20 a predominately Scandinavian program was played by the Guilford Symphony Orchestra, a student ensemble, under the reliable direction of Jose-Luis Novo. The concert opened with a good standard interpretation of the Overture to Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. The orchestra settled down after a few rough spots.
The Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber by Hindemith, which came next, didn't lack for enthusiasm but was sometimes short on subtlety. I found the opening movement too loud but appreciated the difficulties that professional orchestras overcome to pull this one off There was an excellent oboe solo and a particularly humorous contrabassoon solo. The exotic Chinese atmosphere of the "Turandot" movement was better, thanks in part to splendid solos by the flute and clarinet. Extended solos by the flute and a pair of bassoons were highlights of the Andantino. Brasses, horns and woodwinds dominated the last movement, which was given with considerable flair.

Pianist Christina Dahl brought everything one could have wished for as soloist in Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto. She had more than enough power for the loudest portions and brought out the full range of poetry in the quieter, slow sections. The orchestra gave her splendid support with memorable solos from the flute, oboe and cello. There was an interesting touch of vibrato in the horn solo.

Saturday, July 21. "Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra"

The July 21 concert was a certain sellout since it featured EMF Music Director André-Michel Schub in what has to be just about everyone's favorite war-horse, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. The concerto, which ended the concert, was very sensitively led by guest conductor Kenneth Jean, who watched his dynamic soloist like a hawk. Every department of the (professional) Eastern Philharmonic sounded great with wonderful playing from the horns, especially. Fine solos were given by Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer, oboist Eric Olson and cellist Neal Cary.

Schub gave a dazzling display of piano fireworks. His performance swept all doubts before it. The end brought a prolonged standing ovation and three curtain calls.

The concert opened with a delightfully piquant performance of excerpts from Stravinsky's ballet Le Baiser de la Fée (The Fairy's Kiss). Stravinsky used some of Tchaikovsky's piano works in the score but the pungent wind writing was unmistakably his. The selections weren't listed, so a sizable portion of the audience wasn't entirely at fault when applause started too early. Maestro Jean wittily feigned that the piece wasn't over, even at the end. He must be a frustrated dancer: I have never seen a conductor so active on his feet, sometimes seeming to run in place.

The second work, the wonderfully lyrical Suite No. 4 in G, ("Mozartiana"), featured Mozart as raided by Tchaikovsky. The strings were light and diaphanous in the opening Gigue, which also had fine playing by the woodwinds. The minuet went well. The harp shone in the Preghiera movement and an interlude with it set against a rich cello theme and distant-sounding horns was memorable. The concluding Theme and Variations had excellent solos from Concertmaster Multer and a fruity clarinet solo from principal Shannon Scott. This concert was at once a crowd-pleaser and musically satisfying.