As Executive Director Chris Williams reminded the substantial audience, the blockbuster gala performance, presented in Aycock Auditorium, was the last of the Eastern Music Festival‘s 54th season. On paper it looked like almost too much of several good things, for at most other festivals, the evening’s “major work” would have been more than enough to generate grand-finale buzz and lots of advance sales for the next round. So this program – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 – was generous by any standard. But in retrospect one would not have been willing to give up any part of it – aside (perhaps) from the long lines at the small sales and will-call table in the lobby.

The Beethoven, played and conducted from the keyboard by Awadagin Pratt, was first, but the pièce de résistance was nominally the Maher, so we begin with it.

The Eastern Festival Orchestra, reassembled every summer from a remarkably consistent corps of superior and deeply dedicated instrumentalists, has long been viewed by connoisseurs as one of the best symphonic ensembles in the Southeast, and Music Director Gerard Schwarz, an American conducting treasure, has done exemplary work in both programming and development in Greensboro. The band is seated in the most traditional – and consistently reliable – arrangement, with the violins divided, the cellos and basses positioned directly behind the firsts, on the left (stage right), and the violas tucked in behind the seconds, on the opposite side. The stages the EMF uses – Dana, mostly, but UNCG’s deeper one for the concert under discussion – are tight fits for very large ensembles, so the front rows are actually in the halls, forward of the arches, thus giving bloom to the sound that in many multi-purpose auditoria gets nipped in the acoustic bud. The bottom line is that, thus arrayed, this orchestra sounds exceptionally rich and well-defined, and with the intensity and incisiveness these players typically exude, the results are extraordinary by nearly every standard.

Mahler’s Second, known as the “Resurrection” Symphony, was among the master’s relatively few works that attained some popularity in his too-short lifetime. We should not get too hung up on the composer’s theology or lack thereof; it’s enough to know that he pondered life after death and that this work discusses rising again from dust after a short rest, to borrow from Bernard Jacobson‘s translation of  Klopstock‘s and Mahler’s own texts. This is not Biblical, although of course the symphony’s scope and drama may be seen as such.*

Schwarz had the orchestra engulf the room in sonic splendor from the outset and they never let up, delivering in the process one of the finest readings we have heard at these festival concerts. The players clearly like him and give him their all, whether at the most vociferous levels or the most delicate and refined moments of reflection. The first movement – not the original** – is twice as long as the next two combined. Here the cellos and basses, in particular, spoke gloriously and with great resolve and unanimity. The rest of the strings and the winds, brass, and percussion were comparably strong, and the music’s passion was reflected in the work of the instrumentalists. When the long cyclical arch reached its conclusion, echoing the motifs articulated at the outset, the audience seemed stunned by the experience.

The calmer second movement was very expressively played, with subito piano moments that took away the breath, and with touches of portamento that significantly enhanced the music’s emotional appeal. The third movement looks back in some ways to the far more bucolic first symphony but rallies at the end to redirect listeners to the tension of this work’s spiritual and intellectual thrust.

Mezzo-soprano Renèe Tatum ultimately rose to the occasion, delivering “Urlicht” (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) with rich vocal tone-color and impressive diction. Soprano Diana Yodzis Heasty, a UNCG grad and 2014 Appalachian State University prize-winner, sang with distinction from the back of the platform, with the chorus, and then moved to a more prominent place at the conductor’s immediate left; this will be a voice to follow as her career unfolds. That chorus, consisting of around 85 vocalists, sounded remarkably “forward” from perches on risers behind the orchestra; director Carole Ott merits thanks and praise for their preparation.

It may not be Biblical, but the “Resurrection” is a stem-winder that, after lengthy struggles, points in a totally positive direction. The crowd clearly felt that as, immediately upon its conclusion, an ovation began that involved standing, clapping, cheering, and waves of enthusiasm, expressed or implied, in turn resulting in repeated recalls for the participants, ranging from members of the offstage bands to the solo singers to the choir and its director to the numerous stellar instrumentalists whose presence on the platform contributed so much to the evening’s success.

And as if that hadn’t been enough, there was that opening Beethoven concerto.

Pratt is one of a handful of superior keyboard artists now in their absolute mature prime. That he can also conduct with skill and project his keen musicianship and interpretive vision through the playing of others will come as no surprise to those who have heard him in chamber music settings. This reading was triumphant in many respects – musically, of course, and technically, too, and in terms of the wonderful cadenzas, prepared by the soloist/conductor himself but absolutely in keeping with Beethoven’s and the best of those contributed over the years by other master pianist/conductors (Carl Reinicke’s name came to mind…). Here, too, the strings were radiant and immaculately detailed, and the winds, brass, and tympanist were clearly at the top ends of their respective spectrums, in terms of acumen and proficiency. There seemed to be an awful lot of players on stage, but there was never a hint of imbalance, this too demonstrating Pratt’s and his colleagues’ prowess in the art they so elegantly shared with this enthusiastic crowd. Bravo!

*For much more on this topic, there are a variety of worthwhile texts, including Henry Louis de Le Grange’s exhaustive multi-volume biography; a much more manageable tome is Norman Lebrecht’s Why Mahler? Readers curious about Mahler’s views of religion and spirituality may wish to start here, here, and/or here.

**The original first movement survives as a single-movement tone poem (of sorts) called “Totenfeier” (Funeral Rites), available on YouTube (and of course elsewhere).