On Friday June 29th, Elon University President Leo M. Lambert and Director of Cultural Programs George Troxler were on hand to welcome a large turnout to the third annual EMF Piano Faculty Concert in McCrary Theatre. The program was more far ranging than its very loose rubric ” Mozart and Friends” would imply. Powerhouse pianist Christine Dahl reined in her technique in favor of pellucid musical lines in the surprising opening works, the Suite in C, K.399, followed by Eine kleine Gigue, K.574. I had never heard or even read about these little gems. Both reflect the mature Mozart’s in-depth study of J.S. Bach, which came about from his experiences with the noted arts patron, librarian and Bach advocate, Baron Gottfried van Swieten. It was fascinating to hear how Bach’s forms sounded after passing through Mozart’s re-creative prism.

Since last year’s Elon program had featured all duo or piano four-hands performances, I had looked forward to hearing the EMF’s newest faculty member, Gideon Rubin. His wide-ranging set opened with John Adams’s China Gates, a short work featuring an ostinato mid-treble figure. I fear I have minimal interest in the Minimalist School but I liked this better than a typical Philip Glass work.

I savored the rare and glowing performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Fourth Nocturne in E-Flat, Op. 36, which followed. Lustrous performances of two choice Chopin etudes–No. 1 in A-Flat, Op. 25/1, “The Shepherd Boy,” and the famous “Revolutionary” Etude in C Minor ended Rubin’s portion. A superb-sounding CD of modern American piano works (ranging from Gershwin’s Preludes to Glass’s Rush) played by Rubin is available at the EMF gift shop during Dana Auditorium concerts. The first half of the concert ended with kaleidoscopic performances of a selection of Chopin Op. 28 Preludes by High Point native James Giles.

After intermission, Lori Sims, another pianist capable of considerable power, played three of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. Here her emphasis was on luxuriant tone and varied dynamics. Her phrasing was natural with clear lines. She next played a very effective and interesting Rachmaninoff transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which her powerful technique conjured up the whirling fairies. Rachmaninoff’s arrangement, however, suggested some of fairies might be wearing heavy boots.

After the comic collapse of one adjustable end of a piano bench, Sims was joined by Dahl for one of Mozart’s best four-hand piano sonatas, Sonata in B-Flat, K.358. The alternating dialog of each part and the matching duets were a constant delight. All of the EMF piano faculty can be relied upon to deliver musically satisfying performances of either solo or concerto repertory.

Saturday nights at the EMF always feature the professional faculty in the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra. A sellout audience was on hand for the June 30 opening concert under the direction of guest conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann and featuring the celebrated clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. The concert opened with a propulsive performance of Mikhail Glinka’s Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla. I thought that the opening was just too loud but the performance quickly settled into a rich variety of dynamics. It was remarkable how quickly the only-recently-reassembled orchestra had coalesced into a unified entity.

Stoltzman was dazzling in the First Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra by Claude Debussy. Written as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire, it fully exploited all aspects of clarinet technique. Zimmermann excelled in creating a shimmering impressionist background for the soloist. This was a too-rare outing in the French repertory for the conductor and one of his most convincing. Stoltzman and the orchestra also played brilliantly Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E-Flat.

Since this was in no sense a Pops concert, I was bothered by the fact that Stoltzman mugged his way through the whole concerto almost as if he had seen too many Harpo Marx skits. I seem to remember seeing him do this on a Boston Pops telecast, but since this was a straight concert and I had not seen similar behavior when he did the Mozart with the N.C. Symphony in Raleigh or, indeed, the preceding Debussy work, I found it disconcerting here. After a bout of clarinet plumbing, Zimmermann joined in the spirit of things and wiped his baton. Since they received a prolonged standing ovation, perhaps I am the only Beckmesser to hammer a nail.

After intermission, Zimmermann led a simply magnificent performance of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra . His programming of this work in Raleigh’s Meymandi Hall ought to be a highlight of the new season. The musicians gave him everything he asked for in spades with strong solo work in every section. He avoided any hint of false sentimentality. The prolonged standing ovation was justly earned.

Tuesday, July 3: Eastern Chamber Players

Tuesday nights at the EMF have always been reserved for the professional faculty and guest artists to play chamber music. On July 3, at this season’s first chamber music concert, all three works had the piano in common and both pianists played with the lid fully up. The brighter and fuller palate of the Steinway was most welcome.
Mozart’s Second Piano Quartet in E-Flat, K.493, came first, played by Lori Sims, violinist Bonnie Lin, violist Diane Phoenix-Neal and cellist Christopher Hutton. Overall the performance was mellow and relaxed but not at all imprecise. Phrasing was closely matched with burnished string blend. Sims’ piano line was pellucid and sparkling. Violinist Lin had a particularly dark tone that verged on that of a viola. Luckily both lower strings provided enough contrast.

Next came charming jewel, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Caprice on Danish and Russian Themes for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano. Principal Flute Debra Wendells Cross played with a marvelous sense of French style and unbroken line. Principal Oboist Eric Olson had creamy, full tone. Principal clarinetist Shannon Scott was phenomenal in her ability to rein in the naturally larger volume of her instrument to closely match her companions. Gideon Rubin’s fluent piano playing never covered the ensemble. After opening flourishes, Cross’ flute sang the Danish melody that dominated the first half of the work. It was taken up quickly by the clarinet and the rest in turn. The Russian melody that dominated the second half was first stated winningly by oboist Olson. The interplay of instruments and musical lines was a constant delight. This is not deep music but an elegant dessert

I was delighted to have a chance to hear one of Johannes Brahms’ less-often-programmed works and the EMF’s fine guest violinist, Sarah Johnson. I had first heard her on a Piccolo Spoleto program in Charleston in the 1980s when she had her own “Sarah Johnson and Friends” chamber music series at Dock Street Theatre. She has performed Menotti’s Violin Concerto at the Italian Festival, recorded Robert Ward’s, with the Winston-Salem Symphony, and with Barbara Lister-Sink offered Triangle concerts devoted to the music of Moravian composer Charles G. Vardell. At the EMF, she was joined by EMF principal cellist Neal Cary, an ever-reliable interpreter, and Rubin for an especially satisfying performance of the Second Piano Trio in C, Op. 87, by Brahms. The difficult-to-balance first movement came off well and pianist Rubin’s careful control of dynamics kept from drowning the strings. The slow movement, a set of variations, was delectable. The Scherzo and even more vigorous Finale did not lack for energy!

Thursday, July 5: Eastern Symphony Orchestra

Except for special concerts featuring special guest chamber music ensembles, Thursday and Friday nights at the EMF generally feature student orchestras. In the 1970s ranks of these used to have a lot of pre-teens who were more enthusiastic than accomplished. Starting in the 1990s, both orchestras have been made up of middle and late teenagers who have considerable technique. Both of this season’s opening concerts featured very challenging works.

The July 5 concert featured the Eastern Symphony Orchestra under the able direction of Jose-Luis Novo. The Interlude and Dance from Manuel de Falla’s seldom-performed opera La vida breve opened the program. Orchestral balances were excellent. The dark opening spotlighted a rich cello sound. All the string sections were well articulated and had a good ensemble sound. Lively horns and castanets came to the fore in the Dance sequence.

Principal Horn Leslie Norton was marvelous in the Mozart’s Second Horn Concerto in E-Flat, K.417. She had a fine burnished tone and well-executed trills and ornaments. The singing Andante, given with flexible musical lines, good breath control and well-controlled dynamics, was especially lovely. The rustic Rondo was like a call to the hunt with splendid fanfares.

The student orchestra completed the evening with a remarkably well-played Symphony No. 10, Op. 93, by Dmitri Shostakovich. It is widely regarded as his finest symphony, and Novo’s interpretation was well conceived and executed. The dark and rumbling low strings were august in the stately first movement. Tension was carefully ratcheted up. The horn section was resplendent and the flute and clarinet had extensive solos of high standard. The second movement was propulsive with an unstoppable driving momentum. The solo oboe was particularly good. Aside from a slightly-smudged note from the heroic horns, all the brass were refulgent.

Friday, July 6: Guilford Symphony Orchestra

In July 1981, I was present at the North Carolina premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” given by the Eastern Philharmonic, filled out by the best of the students and led by Robert Dunand, who had been timpanist in L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet. Since that concert, the N.C. Symphony played a revised version under Patrick Flynn and, later, the more difficult original version under Gerhardt Zimmermann. It was therefore with great interest that I attended the July 6 concert of the Guilford Symphony under conductor Scott Sandmeier. From a balcony seat, the array of instruments was amazing. The whole of the clarinet family was there, including the seldom-seen small E-flat, which has a prominent part-, along with an array of flutes, and two of the eight horns doubled on Wagner tubas. Sandmeier’s interpretation was effective and the students played proficiently with few noticeable flubs. One was caught up in the momentum just as Stravinsky intended.

The concert opened with Overture to Beethoven’s “Egmont,” which was as rousing as one could have asked. Rehearsals must have been unexpectedly easy. Power-house pianist Lori Sims had all the thunder and dash needed for Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto in G Minor, Op. 22. The majestic opening solo was austere and powerful, and the orchestra was stylish when it entered. It is too bad that this concerto isn’t programmed more often, for it is more interesting than the better known Liszt works.