The air-conditioning was working overtime at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium as the 100% humidity combined with a capacity attendance at the first performance by the Eastern Festival Orchestra of the 2008 Eastern Music Festival. Outside, a lovely brass quintet was playing some nice, jaunty Renaissance tunes until the very real threat of lightning catching the trombonist’s slide made them disband and run for cover. Despite the soggy conditions, complete with nature’s light show, a festive air pervaded the magnificently landscaped grounds that make Guilford a beatific college campus.

This entire season is dedicated to the memory of Sheldon Morgenstern, EMF founder, who died last December at his home in Geneva, Switzerland. The evening began with a remembrance of him and his contributions to the festival and Greensboro. Then, the action got underway like the fireworks that were mostly rained out the previous night. The Gale of Life, a concert overture by Philip Sawyers, is everything you could want in such a work: a slap-your-face opening, powerful driving rhythms, pastoral sections and a breathless race to the finish. Tonight’s conductor, David Lockington, premiered this work with the commissioning Albany Symphony in 2006. Sawyers, who is an accomplished violinist, based this work on the non-stop energy portrayed in the A.E. Housman poem “A Shropshire Lad.” Its virtuosic demands make it like a mini “concerto for orchestra” and made this listener want to seek out more works by Sawyers.

In order to be a player in the world of big-time summer music festivals it is imperative that you employ some of the top echelon names during that brief season. The single name of Midori will do very nicely, especially playing the Brahms Violin Concerto. Midori has survived the sometimes hazardous journey from her absurdly young eleven year old debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1982 to a fabulous career as mature soloist, musical philanthropist and educator. This physically slight woman, to use a sports cliché, tore the horsehide off the ball. As assumed and expected from someone of her stature, she displayed astounding technical control and an unerring beauty of phrasing and tone. What impressed me more than anything was the illusion she gave of discovery and wonder at this masterpiece. This is no small task after playing it hundreds of times. Her sound was also so powerful and piercing that the orchestra was able to play full force without any loss of the soloist’s line. 

The Brahms concerto is hardly just an accompanying vehicle for the orchestra, despite the listener’s primary focus on the soloist. However, the real spotlight on the orchestra and conductor came after intermission with their playing of the fifth symphony of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It has become a tired cliché that whenever there are descriptions of works written by composers who were born or lived north of the latitude of London that there is talk of “frigid, white, endless plains,” “cessation of time,” “the solitude and stillness of the arctic night,” etc. Not this symphony. Written during World War I in part as a celebration of the composer’s 50th birthday, it went through three major revisions before reaching its final form. This is not a “catchy tune” symphony and requires some degree of work and alertness from the listener – but the rewards are great.

The playing was uniformly excellent – powerful and brash when called for, alternating with great sensitivity and nearly inaudible pianissimos that screamed for your attention. The ending passage showed off the remarkable unanimity of quiet and fast bowing across all the strings. In this humble reviewer’s opinion I always found the closing E-flat chords that are repeated four times to be anti-climactic and out of character with the preceding material, but you sure know that it’s over.