For several years the Eastern Music Festival has had a Piano Gala as an outreach concert in the region. Long a popular tradition in High Point, Elon University has seen a steady increase in audience since it was added. Post-concert receptions have allowed local music lovers to meet the performers, all faculty members of the EMF, which has always had a strong piano program. While having the most recent Artist Director, André Michel Schub had been a luxury, the regular staff lack nothing in virtuosity either. This was the first year that a third gala concert was repeated in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus, site of the regular festival performances. Perhaps that was why there was such a small audience on hand for the June 24 concert. Neither they nor the performers lacked enthusiasm, however.

The theme of the gala was “A Tribute to Vladimir Horowitz” and it featured repertory closely associated with him. New to the faculty this year is Yoshikazu Nagai, winner of the first prize in the 2002 Washington International Piano Competition and the Liszt Special Mention Prize in the 2002 IBLA Grand Prize International Piano Competition held in Italy. Trills, ornaments, rapid crossed hands, hairpin rhythmic changes and taste for tonal color were on display in two contrasted Domenico Scarlatti sonatas, a slow one in D Major, K.96, and a bracing one in A Major, K.436.

Frank Weinstock and High Point native James Giles brought out all the chamber music interaction in Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, K.448. Their give and take was a delight to both ears and eyes.

Nagai joined Giles for a formidable performance of Franz Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan (after Mozart). John Gillespie, in Five Centuries of Keyboard Music , notes that, in contrast to his other fantasias on opera themes, “although staggering with problems of virtuosity, this fantasy on Mozart’s opera is a superior piece of music.” It begins with what Steven Ledbetter describes in the program notes as a “grandiose treatment of the stern chords” connected with the statue of the Commendatore, followed by “an elaborate version of the duet ‘Là ci darem la mano’ (Don Giovanni and Zerlina) with two increasingly complex variations, then a return of the dark music followed by a ‘sparkling version’ of the ‘Champagne Aria,'” and ending with a contrasting of the “seducer’s personality and the punishing spirit.” The performance was a tour de force with wide contrasts of dynamics and carefully coordinated playing.

Weinstock combined excellent phrasing and a fine sense of line in Robert Schumann’s “Arabesk,” Op. 18, and then he and Gideon Rubin gave a rhythmically secure performance of the second movement (Waltz) from the two-piano version of Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances,” Op. 45. Elegance was on display throughout the Suite, Op. 71a, from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (arranged by Economou), played by Rubin and Nagai. The “Arabian Dance” was sultry and languorous and the irregular rhythm of the “Chinese Dance” came off particularly well. All four pianists joined for a rousing Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s Carmen , arranged by Wilberg. No piano gala could end without the shameless fun of an eight-hand version of Horowitz’s showy “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Dana Auditorium was nearly full for the first concert of the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra under guest conductor Christof Perick, Music Director of the Charlotte Symphony, given on June 28. The EPO, comprised of faculty members from orchestras across the U.S., has had stable membership for some time. It has a surprising amount of ensemble spirit despite the absence of a regular conductor for half a decade. (Perick’s own Charlotte orchestra greatly impressed us with its artistic growth when we reviewed Grant Llewellyn’s guest appearance with them last spring.)

Works by Beethoven sandwiched a masterpiece by Richard Strauss. We hear so many mediocre performances of some works that we cringe when we see them listed on a program. Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, which opened the concert, is such a work. Imagine my surprise when it quickly became clear that Perick had carefully reconsidered every nook and cranny of the old warhorse. Full value was given to playing quietly while still allowing the music to register physically with the listener. Balances between the sections were excellent, and the care taken with phrasing – such as a little phrase for the viola section near the end of the slow introduction – was extraordinary. The horns, led by Leslie Norton, were superb all evening. Even the deployment of the off-stage trumpets was different – one was back stage, left, while another was at the back of the hall, for the second solo.

All these virtues were carried over into the concluding Beethoven Symphony No. 3, in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”). This work has had a number of fine performances over the years in both the Triangle and Triad but none was better than Perick’s. Every section of the orchestra played with the intensity of new discovery – hardly easy to do with an old chestnut. The horn section was perfect in the glorious trio of the Scherzo. The woodwinds were trenchant. Flutist Les Rogers and oboist Eric Olson were the principals who earned the conductor’s acknowledgement (as had the horns, earlier). Perick provided carefully balanced and stylistic accompaniment for soprano Twyla Robinson’s realization of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. A winner of the 2002 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, her firm and evenly supported soprano voice had a marvelous ring. Her diction was likewise excellent; I followed the text closely, and the few times I thought she had erred it turned out to be my own eyes in the low lighting. No superfluous gestures distracted from the perfect flow of Strauss’ music. Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer and Principal Horn Norton and all his section colleagues richly deserved their accolades. The orchestra was wonderful in the short prelude and postlude to the last song, “Im Abendrot,” and Robinson captured Strauss’s mood of calm acceptance of Death perfectly.

[Edited 7/6/03.]