Closing this summer’s student performances was a stunning performance of Maurice Ravel’s exciting Second Suite from his ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, conducted by the Eastern Music Festival’s Resident Conductor, Jose-Luis Novo. Preceding it were performances by the final three concerto competition winners, the other three having performed on the previous day’s concert. Guest conductor Chelsea Tipton led the Guilford Symphony Orchestra for these concerto performances.

We were first treated to the prowess of the pianist William Huehold, from Wilmington, NC, who boldly chose to play the third movement of the Third Piano Concerto, Op. 95, of American composer, Lowell Liebermann (b. 1961). In this concerto, except for a Ravel-like chorale, the piano is integrated into the fabric of the work rather than playing the “your turn, my turn” game of tag prevalent in many concertos. Generally a jolly and fast piece in a triple meter (12/8 and 6/8), there were many canonic episodes interrupted by occasional oom-pah, oom-pah segments and even a Joplin-esque Rag!  Kudos go to the soloist, both for his performance and for his choice of this non-mainstream concerto and to Maestro Chelsea Tipton who conducted this unfamiliar score with solid assurance.

Yes, the double bass does have a life of its own, out of the shadowy pit, forward from the back of the stage, occasionally as a chamber musician (the Trout Quintet by Schubert), and as a soloist in a handful of concertos, all too rarely heard. Xavier Foley, 15 from Marietta GA, chose to play the first movement of the First Concerto in F-sharp minor by Giovanni Bottesini, a 19th Century Italian composer, conductor and double bass virtuoso, often referred to as “the Paganini of the Bass.”

From his initial entrance (after the lengthy orchestral exposition) Foley showed a beautiful warm tone and lovely vibrato which put to rest what I had thought of as the double bass standard – low, grumpy and indistinct. Moving swiftly from resonant low notes to bell-like harmonics, Foley mastered his instrument and gave the audience an entirely new perception of the bass. The broadest, wildest, loudest ovation of the entire festival erupted at the end of this stupendous performance!

Violinist Kai-Wei Chen, 20, from Taiwan, closed the first half of the concert with Ravel’s “Tzigane.” Miss Chen is a gifted musician, for whom the Ravel posed no insurmountable challenges. Indeed, she mastered the work, powering through the intonation problems in the first part of the work. However, this gypsy was restless and in a hurry, not the wise, wily, older gypsy we have come to expect from the lineage of Ravel to Enescu to Yehudi Menuhin, Ginette Neveu and Arthur Grumiaux. Unfortunately, this musical haste deprived the work of many of its subtleties.

The busy stage crew of students and interns facilitated the switch to the Eastern Symphony Orchestra, adding stands and chairs for the huge number of extra musicians. The audience, packed with enthusiastic music students and parents come to retrieve their kids, was treated to a first-rate orchestral experience under the direction of Maestro Novo. Ravels ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, is rarely staged, but the sumptuous and sensuous score he wrote, especially the last two thirds of it, the Second Suite, is the highlight of many a season for all professional orchestras. It is fraught with difficulties, from the glissando-like arpeggio noodling in the first part of the suite to the break-neck 5/4 chromatic figures in the orgiastic “Danse générale” that closes the work. And between, are some of the most sensual French composition tricks, from subtle glisses to sudden pauses and abrupt tempo changes. The “Pantomime” section in which Chloé mimes her dream of having been seduced by Pan, is a huge flute solo, admirably played by Katherine Francis of Blythewood, SC, over the rhythm of a slow Habanera. Indeed, the whole flute section, from the piccolo to the low alto flute in G, sparkled.

There is no doubt in the mind of this reviewer that these closing concerts were among the best of the season and that the orchestras are better than ever, even with recruiting problems brought on by the weak economy. Next year, EMF’s 50th will be a season to look forward to with gleeful anticipation!