Bela Fleck with Eastern Music Festival, 2024. Photo credit: Jonathan Collin Greene

GREENSBORO, NC – The Eastern Festival Orchestra, which on Saturday was comprised of 58 faculty, 16 fellows, and 15 students from the Eastern Music Festival, played the first concert of the 63rd season Saturday night to a packed house in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus. Under the inspired direction of Gerard Schwarz, the orchestra strutted its impressive stuff with compositions ranging from the last quarter of the 19th century to a legendary composition newly arranged this year.

The evening opened with the brilliant Celebration for Orchestra (1984) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (U.S., b. 1939), written for the Indianapolis Symphony’s new home in the Circle Theatre. Zwilich was the first woman composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. She has stated that Celebration “is like a mini-concerto for orchestra.”

Indeed, almost every instrument gets some time in the spotlight amid swirling textures and extreme dynamic contrasts. A frequently heard pulsating motive (an ascending perfect fourth) helps tie the piece together. The EFO displayed its usual energetic “take the bull by the horns” and dove straight into the kaleidoscope of colors and rhythms.

Up next was a “real” concerto, Rhapsodie for Saxophone and Orchestra, L 98 (1901-11) by Claude Debussy (France, 1862-1918). Written originally for saxophone and piano, French composer Jean Roger Ducasse arranged the work for the orchestra in 1919. The soloist for this performance was the 2023 Rosen Schaffel Concerto Competition Winner, Carter Doolittle, a junior at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

This ten-minute multi-sectional work careened quickly between moods, textures, and characters. Doolittle appropriately changed the timbre of the sax as he easily negotiated his way through the work. Several short solo saxophone passages take place, and Schwarz allowed the young musician the freedom to play the episode freely before jumping back in to lead the orchestra.

Bela Fleck with Gerard Schwartz and the Eastern Music Festival. Photo credit: Jonathan Collin Greene

The third work presented, also a concerto of sorts, was the famous Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (U.S., 1898-1937). The current version was arranged for banjo by the star soloist, Béla Fleck (U.S., b. 1958), who has been nominated for a Grammy Award 39 times, taking it home 17 times. Fleck fell in love with Rhapsody when he first heard it in the movie with the same name when he was seven years old. Since then, he has arranged it in several guises: Rhapsody In Blue(Grass), Rhapsody In Blue(S), and Rhapsody In Blue (where the banjo ostensibly plays the piano solo part).

What a tour de force this performance was. From the opening wailing clarinet slide to the final sustained orchestral chord with banjo overlay, the audience was spellbound. And no wonder, not only did the orchestra sound great, but Fleck navigated the tricky piano part (even tricker on banjo) without a hitch. Schwarz once again gave the soloist free reign to play his solo passages with spontaneity.

The audience demanded and was treated to an encore. It was something along the line of a Bach-ish Prelude that occasionally seemed to run into a dead end, from which Fleck always managed to escape, eventually using the theme from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” It seemed as though the guy could have played all night without running out of ideas. The crowd was appropriately wowed.

After intermission, the EFO sank its teeth into the meaty Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) by Peter Tchaikovsky (Russia, 1840-93). Although there is no written program associated with the symphony, Tchaikovsky hinted at the meaning of at least the first movement in his notebook: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or which is the same thing, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.” Since the symphony’s first performance, audiences have been thrilled with its soaring lyricism, its dramatic power, and brilliant climaxes.

Schwarz kept the war-horse alive with his own ideas, exploiting dynamic shading to underscore phrase structure, building climaxes in his own fashion, or using slight speeding up or slowing down to bring out a line, always bringing the score alive. The musicians have had one week together, as this was the first of five performances the orchestra will play. They are still getting settled in finding a cohesive, coherent orchestral sound. Sometimes the details seemed to overshadow the overall effect. This is not really a criticism, as there are good things to say about noticing the details and building blocks; it is only an observation that I suspect will change over the course of the summer.

The massive four-movement, 50-minute composition demanded much from the musicians, who gave their all to accomplish Schwarz’s purposes. The tension in the opening introduction was intense, the gorgeous romantic melodies were lovingly shaped, and the climaxes threatened to overwhelm – just the way Tchaikovsky must have hoped for. I’m not sure I have ever heard such loud climaxes, where I sat in the balcony, as in Saturday night’s performance. And as dedicated as each musician was, there was no one more dedicated than the man on the podium.