“Fanfares and Flourishes” was the overall title for this concert of the Eastern Festival Orchestra in Guilford College‘s Dana Auditorium. A musical calling card by one of the most significant living American women composers opened the concert. Both large twentieth century Russian works filling out the program abounded in plenty of orchestral flourishes. This all-faculty concert was conducted by Eastern Music Festival music director Gerard Schwarz.

A 1980s Duke University residency by composer/pianist Joan Tower (b.1928) and her Da Capo Chamber Players was my first exposure the this barrier-breaking and prolific composer. During the feminist awareness of the 1960s and 1970s, she reacted to the dearth of women composers. Her “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” (1986) was her playful riff on the title of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Since this first work, she has composed five more fanfares. They serve as the composer’s calling cards honoring “women who take risks, who are adventurists.” Ten years after composing her Fifth Fanfare, she composed her “Sixth Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” for conductor Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra who premiered it May 1, 2014. It is an orchestrated version of an earlier piano version. While dominated by the composer’s characteristic strong rhythmic drive, it has brief lyrical passages.

Schwarz led a rousing performance with tight control of the dominating rhythm whether orchestra wide or juxtaposed within sections set against lyrical themes. Tower’s imaginative scoring called for fine melodic passages for solo oboe and both the cello and viola sections. Swirling flutes made a fine impression. Was there some “flutter-tonging” in the brass? Strings soared stratospherically bowed near the bridge.

The Violin Concerto in D minor (1940) by Aram Khachaturian (1903-78) was composed for and in close corroboration with David Oistrakh, who did not spare in suggesting technical difficulties. The composer drew extensively upon his native Armenian folk melodies. Its three movements are: Allegro con fermezza, Adagio sostenutto, and Vivace giocoso. The first movement juxtaposes energetic dance material against a dreamy, lyrical second subject. Two spectacular cadenzas frame a development section. The slow movement is suggestive of improvised variations upon a haunting waltz with a flavor of orientalism. The vigorous rondo finale brings back and reworks three earlier themes. Hardly any rest is ever given to the soloist.

The truly heroic soloist was Mark Peskanov, who seemed to have infinite reserves of sheer physical strength. Many passages require the violinist to apply maximum bowing pressure in order to project over the thick orchestration. Very few could do so while producing Peskanov’s deeply pleasing tone and flawless intonation. His palette of refined dynamics and tone color was astonishing. Schwarz led the orchestra in carefully balanced support of Peskanov while giving full scope to colorful orchestration. Musical lines were consistently clear in the most thickly scored passages. This was a very welcome chance to hear a work that seems to have been performed much less than during the 1940s-1950s.

Peskanov’s encore, played so eloquently, was the Adagio from Sonata No. 1 in G minor, S.1001, by J.S. Bach.

The massive Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 (“The Year 1905”), by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), composed in 1957, commemorates slaughter of peaceful demonstrators in the square of Tsar Nicholas II’s winter palace in St. Petersburg by the tsar’s troops. The controversial book Testimony asserts the composer had a subtext drawing parallel to the contemporary Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Played without pause, its four movements are: “The Palace Square” (Adagio), “January 9, 1905” (Allegro), “In Memoriam” (Adagio), and “Tocsin” (Allegro non troppo). The still, threatening, icy scene is portrayed in the first movement. Next, slashing, pounding music limn the troops’ slaughtering attack. The third is a deeply mournful dirge culminating in the call for violent revolutionary response in finale, “Tocin.” Contemporary Russians would have immediately responded to Shostakovich use of well-known nineteenth and early twentieth century popular songs such as “Listen” and “The Arrested Man” in the opening. The Russian Orthodox Kontakion, the prayer for the dead, is used frequently throughout. The revolutionary funeral song “You fell as a victim” is used in the third movement leading toward a call to arms with “Bravely, comrades, step forward!” Several are quoted in the finale including “Warsaw Song,” the most famous Russian revolutionary anthem. The full power of the orchestra is unleashed again at the end.

Schwarz led his musicians in breathtaking performance, revealing many extraordinary orchestral details within a firm, over-arching interpretative view. Dynamics were carefully gauged with haunting, hushed ppp, almost more felt than heard, set against savage pounding by the extensive percussion section. Woodwinds were gorgeous and the brass were consistently brilliant. Strings were full and rich with refined tone and clear articulation in the fastest passages. Sustained standing ovations rewarded the musicians’ tremendous efforts.

EMF 2019 continues throughout the month. See our calendar for listings.