The 58th annual Eastern Music Festival opened its orchestral concert series with two of Johannes Brahms’ greatest works, performed by three full symphony orchestras, starting with the fully professional Eastern Festival Orchestra, whose members are the leaders and principals of some 40 different orchestras around the world and who serve as the faculty for the nearly 200 young instrumentalists, most of whom form the two student orchestras. Music director Gerard Schwarz, now in his 11th year at EMF, led all three orchestras.

The opening work was the Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102, usually referred to as Brahms’ Double Concerto. The youthful soloists were the associate concertmaster, Nigel Armstrong, violin, and associate principal cellist, Julian Schwarz, who only 11 years ago was himself a student at EMF, and a winner of the 2008 EMF concerto competition.

Brahms’ Double Concerto is a lovely and whimsical work for a combination of soloists not often paired together, although recently the Greensboro Symphony presented the Pas de Deux by Chris Brubeck for that same combination. The Brahms was written in part as a peace offering to his long-time friend Josef Joachim whose estranged wife Brahms had defended during divorce proceedings. And it contains many allusions to his friendship with Robert Schumann’s widow, Clara, notably a whistle call which makes up the first four notes of the second movement, and starts the principal theme, a soaring and tender melody. The work ends with a rollicking gypsy-like rondo, albeit in a minor key. Many passages throughout the concerto end in quiet moments of silent reflection, not unlike vignettes in painting or pauses for reflection in conversation.

The cello is a difficult instrument to feature in a concerto because its voice is often drowned out by the orchestra playing in the same tessitura. However, this was not a problem on this occasion, with Schwarz’s Gagliano cello (1743) carrying well through thick and thin of the orchestra. If anything, the cello occasionally overpowered the Prassenda violin (1823) of Armstrong. Armstrong’s lovely pure tone was no match for the lush opulence of this cellist, rife with rubati and portamenti.

A rousing encore delighted the audience – Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a Theme by Händel, originally for violin and viola, but equally at home on the cello. Here there was no disparity between instruments, just sparkling fireworks!

At intermission the Festival Orchestra left the stage, to be replaced by the first of the two student orchestras. Between them they would divide up the other work on the program, Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98, written two years before the Double Concerto.

Despite the adequate technical mastery of the young orchestras, the difference with the professional orchestra at the beginning of the five-week festival was striking. The sense of predictability and expectation which comes from practicing and playing many hours and days together was absent, leaving many subtleties in darkness or entirely absent – for example, the very beginning of the symphony, like a song just becoming audible, is accompanied by a canon in the woodwinds, half a measure later, but the canon was just turned into an off-beat rhythmic accompaniment. But from personal experience, I know they will gain in subtlety and perfection by the end of the Festival. Special mention to some very sensitive playing by the first oboe in the first student orchestra and by the flute solo in the slow section of the last movement.

For the next four weeks, the student orchestras will perform in Dana Auditorium each Thursday and Friday night at 8:00 P.M. The professional Festival Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Schwarz, will perform each Saturday night at the same time and in the same location.

There are pre-concerts talks, Musically Speaking, in the adjacent Moon Room at 7 PM before each of the three orchestral concerts for the duration of the Festival. See the CVNC calendar for more details.