It may have been a rare and welcome cool July evening outside Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium, but the musical action from soloist and orchestra on stage was hot! Music director Gerard Schwarz led the professional Eastern Festival Orchestra in two works by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) and a tour de force from Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Guest soloist Anne Akiko Meyers was on hand for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. These central works of the repertoire received revelatory performances.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, (“Italian”) is high on this music lover’s list of favorites. It was inspired by the composer’s 1830-31 tour of Italy. In a February 22, 1831, letter to his sisters, he wrote it was “the jolliest piece I have ever done.”

Schwarz and his musicians lit into the piece with high level of energy and momentum. The woodwinds sparkled with the soaring violins in the opening movement. The clarity of detail within the string sections was remarkable. Brass and woodwinds were trenchant. The pacing of the Andante second movement was ideal, with solemn woodwind and lumbering, low pizzicatos from the cellos and double basses. The elegant minuet and its trio were beautifully phrased. Schwarz controlled the finale’s Saltarello firmly before unleashing the composer’s Presto evocation of a hectic Roman carnival.

Mendelssohn’s mature Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1839), is a key arrow in any budding virtuoso’s quiver. It was composed for Ferdinand David, the concertmaster of Mendelssohn’s Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, who worked closely with the composer. It is in three movements, played seamlessly without a break. Meyers, making a welcome return to the festival, gave us the chance to hear her “Ex-Vieuxtemos” Guarneri del Gesu violin. Recently awarded to Meyers for her lifetime use, many consider it to be the finest sounding violin in existence.

Mendelssohn’s eschewing of a traditional extended orchestral introduction immediately focused attention on the soloist. The glorious effect of Meyers’ musical and technical mastery as well as her famous violin sound were immediately heard in the passionate, melodic principal theme. What a refined palette of tonal color! And how immaculate was her intonation as her violin soared from pp to ff! Schwarz and the orchestra provided refined, precise support. Meyers brought great insight and skill to her interpretation of the first movement cadenza. A nicely held bassoon note led without break to the slow movement with its unending, flowing melodic line and exploration of shifting harmonies. Meyers and the musicians seemed effortlessly to frolic through Mendelssohn’s fairy-like finale. What unerring attacks! What a swirling tapestry of melody!

Multiple enthusiastic curtain calls were rewarded with an encore. Eschewing the usual solo violin showpiece, Meyers chose one shared with the orchestra, the “Theme” from Schindler’s List by John Williams. The soloist and Schwarz’s players spun the sad, evocative melodies without break. The instruments of principal cellist Neal Cary and principal violist Dan Reinker rose briefly above accompaniment in dialog with Meyers.

The Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, by Bartók (1881-1945), is probably his most popular work as well as his last completed one. It was a 1943 commission by Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted the December 1, 1944, premiere. It is a palindrome in five movements with the third movement, “Elegia,” the heart of the work.

Schwarz led the orchestra in a deeply committed, virtuosic performance. In the first movement, irregular meters and vigorous rhythms seemed to come off without effort. Primary colors of instrumental groups provided an endless kaleidoscopic spectrum. The juxtaposition of deep, dark double basses and cellos with tremolos on high muted strings was delightful. The prism of timbres continued in the second movement, “Game of Pairs,” as each pair of instruments – bassoons first, oboes next, then clarinets and flutes through muted trumpets – came to the fore. Schwarz brought out all the eerie qualities of “Elegia,” a classic example of Bartók’s “Night Music.” (He described it as a “lugubrious death song.”) The brew of woodwind arabesques, harp glissandos, and soft string tremolos came off perfectly. The folk-like melodies of the Intermezzo fourth movement were played with verve. The highlight was the tremendous loud orchestral raspberry – Bartók’s musically thumbing of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony! The finale was simply breathtaking! Schwarz and the orchestra attacked the fiery perpetual motion, the wild dance-like rhythms, and the famous intricate fugal passage with tremendous energy and amazing precision.

The EMF continues through July 28. For details, see our calendar.