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Eager if wilted music lovers who braved the high 90-degree heat and worse relative humidity outside Guilford College's Dana Auditorium were rewarded with an adventuresome Eastern Music Festival program. Anticipation focused on another in a decade-long series of world premieres along with the welcome return of violinist James Ehnes performing a delightful concerto from the fringes of the repertoire. The massive, inexorable Fifth Symphony of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) capped this evening of orchestral virtuosity on the part of the all-faculty Eastern Festival Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz's insightful direction.
One of music director Schwarz's innovations was to suggest an annual series, over ten years, to commission new works for orchestra. This concert opened with the fourth commission in the series funded by Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, former ambassador to Finland and CEO of Greensboro's Pace Communications.
This year's selection, "Can Spring Be Far Behind?" (2016), was composed by André Previn (b.1929) and orchestrated by Greg Anthony Rassen. Previn provides no program information, and the steamy weather outside challenged any literal inference from the title! Metaphorical fodder might be found from the fact that the line is a rhetorical question at the end of the poem, "Ode to the West Wind," by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The work, about 15 minutes long, is quite a crazy quilt of orchestral writing, demanding virtuosity from the first stands and, frequently, entire sections. A loud, stormy opening for full orchestra leads to a quieter, swirling segment dominated by an ostinato rhythm. Brief solos for trumpet and flute and other woodwinds punctuate fleeting pizzicatos. A full, rich, and romantic melody from massed cellos and double basses stands out. Interesting brief solos for oboe, harp, cello, clarinet, and trumpet follow a dissonant episode. I especially enjoyed some unusual scoring for first-stand pairs of cellos and violas. Other imaginative touches involve mournful horns and percussion, including coconut halves. The music seems to coalesce into a sort of apotheosis near the end. Repeated listening would clarify these impressions and would surely be rewarding.
Previn could have hardly desired a more sympathetic performance than that Schwarz and his players delivered. The musicians followed every sudden shift of the score and provided splendid individual solos. The work was very warmly received.
The Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 8 (1882), was begun by the 17-year old Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and completed four years later. It was dedicated to his second cousin, the violinist Benno Walter, concertmaster of the Munich Court Orchestra and the composer's violin teacher. Walter played the premiere with orchestra in 1890 in Cologne. The concerto is in three movements, a perhaps-overlong Allegro, ma non troppo, a sweet and lovely Lento ma non troppo (better described as an Andantino), and a lively Rondo (Presto). Although it is very much in the romantic tradition of Bruch and Goldmark, it omits cadenzas.
There certainly was no want of power as Ehnes dug in his bow for a brilliant first entrance after the orchestra's fanfare-like ritornello! His gorgeous tone and impeccable intonation gave full value to Strauss' winning melodies while his technical mastery took the composer's every challenge in stride. Both the concerto and Ehnes' performance were enthusiastically received. The audience was then rewarded with an encore selection from the Partita No. 1 in B minor, S.1002, by J. S. Bach.
Prokofiev composed his monumental Symphony No. 5 in B-flat minor, Op. 100, in 1944 in a rest home in Ivanovo where a number of composers had been evacuated during World War II and encouraged to contribute to building up public morale. The composer described the symphony's program as a vague hymn to the freedom of the human spirit. Its optimism ironically caused it to be regarded as a celebration of victory. It is in four movements. A nearly 13-minute-long opening Andante, is pervasively lyrical, and all three main themes are long, flowing melodies. These are clear during even the most contrapuntal portions. Prokofiev called the style of his scherzo-like second movement, Allegro marcato, "motoric." Its sardonic and sassy spirit comes from an insistent quaver ostinato and its brilliant hard-edged melodic line. Some of the composer's most eloquent string writing is in a 12-minute-long Adagio. The finale, Allegro giocoso, is exuberant, sassy, and full of zest.
Schwarz led his skilled musicians through an extraordinarily satisfying and stylish performance. Full value was given to Prokofiev's distinctive edgy harmonies and barely controlled energies. His seating of the orchestra, with first violins on stage left and second violins on stage right, helped clarify the musical textures. Massed cellos and double basses seated behind the first violins contributed to the deep richness of the strings. Wonderful viola passages stood out because of their seating behind the second violins. Brasses and woodwinds, especially solos from flute, bassoon, trumpet, and horns, were breathtaking.
To read more on the premiere work see this Greensboro News and Record article.
For more information on upcoming EMF performances visit our calendar.