Saturday, July 7. Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra

The July 7th concert at the EMF featured Cho-Liang Lin, one of the most patrician violinists before the public today, along with cellist Gary Hoffman, a fine musician who ought to be better known in our area. We gave Lin glowing reviews for his chamber music appearances in the Triangle last season and for his memorable performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at last year’s EMF. I believe all of Hoffman’s Triangle appearances have been as part of chamber music groups. The conductor was Heiichiro Ohyama, a former Principal Violist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the legendary Carlo Maria Giulini. He had also impressed us with his program during last season’s EMF.

The concert opened with a lively and stylish performance of the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. Strings were light and agile and the woodwinds bubbled with merriment.

For me, the main attraction was Johannes Brahms’s Double Concerto in A Minor, . This pensive and gorgeous score was composed in part with the intention of reconciling the break between Brahms and his long time friend, Joseph Joachim, the violinist. Hoffman projected rich sound in the extended solo entry. The orchestra’s tutti had a full and vigorous tone, rich but with all lines clear. Lin’s entrance was as pure and sweet in tone as could be imagined. Their dialogues and duets were a constant source of pleasure. I was impressed with some unusually fine “ppp” cello playing near the end of the Andante second movement. The concluding movement was as boisterous as one could have wished.

The concert ended with one of the most often programmed works, Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World .” Conductor Ohyama did the nearly impossible, directing the orchestra in a remarkably fresh sounding performance. While I don’t think I have ever heard a really bad performance of the Ninth, some have been routine. Ohyama’s interpretation was well within normal parameters but his performance made it sound almost as if one were hearing it the first time. Nothing was sentimentalized. The famous English horn solo was played straight with no exaggerations. It was a welcome finish to an evening of honest music making.

Tuesday, July 10. Eastern Chamber Players: “Romance to French Impressionism.”

This famished Francophile had looked forward to the second EMF professional chamber music concert on July 10 since it featured works by French composers exclusively. Such elegant works make up too little of our regular programming.

The program opened with a real rarity, Fantasy in A for Violin and Harp, Op. 124, by the prolific Camille Saint-Saëns, played by Randall Weiss and Anna Kate Mackle, respectively. Although he was a consummate craftsman, Saint-Saëns did not always have profound masterpieces as his goal; many of his works are like choice appetizers. The harp opened the piece and was soon joined by the violin’s repetition of the figure, spiced with some exposed clear high notes. The slower section was broadly bowed, bringing a darker color. Perhaps the delicate fast passage that followed was the extended 5/4-time section mentioned in the notes as being particularly striking. Violin pizzicatos were contrasted with the higher register of the harp.

Maurice Ravel’s ever-enchanting Piano Trio in A Minor came next, played by pianist Christina Dahl, violinist Corine Brouwer and cellist Amy Frost-Baumgarten. The first movement had a somewhat more restrained tempo than I am used to–there was a sense of near-timelessness in places. Dahl’s piano lid was fully up but she avoided swamping her partners. Not for the first time were we grateful for the switch to the brighter and clearer sound of a Steinway piano. Near the end of the first movement, there was some odd interference in the last bowed high notes. The second (“Pantoum”) movement was wonderful with its varied pizzicatos and sweeping phrases. Dahl was outstanding in the rapid closing section. The austere and solemn Passacaille was all one could have wanted. The fast and swirling Anime brought the work to a rousing conclusion. The cello did come close to being swamped by the piano once or twice in this movement.

The evening was given a perfect finish with Gabriel Fauré’s First Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 15. The players were pianist James Giles, violinist Anthony DeMarco, violist Marc Glenn Looentjens, and cellist Marc Moskovitz. After hearing the first half in an orchestra seat, I switched to a balcony seat for the Fauré. Despite the greater distance, the sound was full and well balanced. Giles’ piano was a model of clarity. The first movement’s thick scoring was kept unusually clear. A highlight was the rippling piano part and pizzicatos of the delicious second movement, a scherzo. The great slow movement was superb; to quote the program notes, it was “serenely expressive but nobly restrained.” The triumphant final movement brought the house to its feet in applause. Fauré composed two piano quartets, two piano quintets and a lesser-known string quartet–not to mention lots of solo piano music. I hope that more will be programmed at the EMF.

Wednesday, July 11. “All that Jazz: Gershwin and Milhaud.”

This season has seen a number of programming innovations at the EMF. One of the biggest was featuring the professional Eastern Philharmonic on two concerts within the same week. An orchestra heavy with woodwinds and brass with few strings was on hand Wednesday night for a creative and fascinating concert of works heavily influenced by America’s own original music-jazz. The able guest conductor David Loebel led the sizzling orchestra and the brilliant piano soloist was the EMF’s Music Director, André-Michel Schub.

The concert opened with an intriguing and rare area performance of “La Creation du Monde” by Darius Milhaud. Every culture’s music to which the French composer (one of the famous “Les Six”) was exposed was transmuted into his idiom. After immersion in Brazilian music, he came under the spell of American Jazz by way of the Black American service bands after the WW I Armistice. Later, in the early 1920s, he frequented Harlem nightspots and resolved to incorporate jazz into his music.

After “legato waves of melody” jazzed by a plaintive saxophone set against the small string section, the tempo sped up “into a rhythmic and bluesy fugue.” Trumpet calls preceded the entry of the trombone and other brass and woodwinds. A faster section found a percussive orchestral piano and jazzy bass rifts leading to the loudest portion. There was an extended mournful solo for the cello and a bluesy solo for the oboe set against a figure for the horns. The work ended with a faster section with pizzicato strings set against solo clarinet and oboe.

The second work was a crowd-pleasing medley of the principal songs from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess , transcribed for brass quintet. The players were trumpeters Mark Neihaus and Andrew Prisk, hornist Kevin Reid, trombonist John Ilika and tuba player Lee Hipp. All were flawless and flexible in execution. After a brief version of the overture most of the best-loved selections came up for sometimes surprising treatments. The solo tuba intoned ” Bess, you is my woman now.” A striking “I got plenty of nothin’ ” was declaimed by a very agile trombone while a sassy muted trumpet blasphemed “It ain’t necessarily so!”

After intermission, I found that the printed program had reversed the order of Aaron Copland’s “Two Pieces for Violin and Piano.” Unusually, pianist Schub played with his piano’s lid in its lowest open position. Associate concertmaster Lisa Sutton was the able violinist. The first piece, a nocturne-like work featuring both instruments in their middle range, had to have been “Nocturne.” The sassy and swaggering second piece featuring a bluesy violin part had to have been “Ukulele Serenade.” Near the end it featured the pizzicato violin set against the piano played in its highest range.

Schub had the Steinway’s lid fully up for his fiery performance of the original 1924 version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” This was the version commissioned and played by Paul Whiteman’s Jazz Band. Shannon Scott’s fruity and jazzy opening riff was perfection. I believe the entire saxophone family was there. It was fascinating to hear parts usually played by the strings in the revised standard orchestral version, taken up by wind or brass instruments. Schub was steel-fingered and indomitable. A full house gave all an extended standing ovation.

Thursday, July 12. Eastern Symphony Orchestra Concert: “An Evening of Elegance and Grandeur.”

The July 12 concert of the Eastern Symphony Orchestra showcased the student musicians skills in works ranging from that of small-scale elegance to that of a vast orchestral tapestry. In past seasons, conductor Scott Sandmeier had often pleased in the French repertory, and he did so again as well as succeeded in holding a large, sprawling orchestral work firmly together.

The First Cello Concerto in A Minor of Camille Saint-Saëns opened the concert. The heavy debt to Liszt is shown in his imaginative use of thematic transformation. Much of the Concerto was built upon motives first heard in the opening bars. After a chord by the orchestra, the cello launched “with a triplet-filled theme that swept downward, to end in a half-step rise and fall, E-F-E, echoed an octave later.” Both of these dominated the first of the three continuous movements. A solo cello passage linked this to the second movement that had the delicate 3/4 character of a minuet. Principal Cellist Neal Cary’s warm tone glowed over the gossamer dance in the orchestra. The minuet broadened near the end into more of a waltz-like rhythm. Cary’s solo cadenza before the final movement was brilliant and stylish. Principal motives from the first movement returned to be subtly blended with elements of the second. Sandmeier expertly balanced the orchestra, never covering Cary’s burnished tone. Many sensitive solos were heard from the student principals, especially the flute and bassoon but also the rest of the woodwinds. The horns were splendid. Dynamics were handled particularly well.

The rest of the evening was filled with Gustav Holst’s vast orchestral suite, The Planets . Balances were generally good, and aside from a few minor false entrances, the orchestra was on its toes. “Mars,” with its threatening rhythm, allowed the horns, trombones and percussion to shine, particularly when set against the eerie and ominous sound of massed strings being struck by bows. The tempo seemed a touch slower than that I have experienced on recordings or in last season’s Greensboro Symphony concert under Stuart Malina or an earlier North Carolina Symphony reading under Gerhardt Zimmermann. Though well played and featuring fine solos from the horn, concertmaster and cello, the tempo of “Venus” was just too slow. There were excellent solos from the concertmaster, harps and glockenspiel in the rapid rush of “Mercury.” A broad and hearty tempo for “Jupiter” allowed the brass to gleam and the rich cello theme was luminous. “Saturn” (“Old Age”) was appropriately cool in tone; its odd lurching rhythm was perfect. A taped organ was used in the concluding “Neptune.” The alto flute had a fine solo. An episode featuring three members of the flute family–piccolo, two standard flutes and a flute in G–and the two harps was memorable. No chorus was used in the final aural fade into silence.

Friday, July 13. “A Shakespeare Celebration.”

Another of several programming innovations at this season’s EMF was a Shakespeare Celebration at Dana Auditorium. This utilized the Guilford Symphony Orchestra, whose members are students, and three fine actors from the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, based in High Point. It was a good chance to expose theatre and music audiences to a sampler of both festivals and to program some underexposed music. The actors were Elizabeth Slaby, Allan Edwards and Mark Kincaid. The adept conductor was Jose-Luis Novo.

The concert began with a scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor , with Mrs. Ford reacting to Sir John Falstaff’s purple-prose love letter, their brief encounter and an especially fine “cuckold” speech by Kincaid. This was followed by the orchestra playing Otto Nicolai’s Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor . For some reason, the violin sections had a thin tone in this piece, but the horns and woodwinds were fine. Parts of the scoring reminded me vaguely of Mendelssohn’s lighter touches.

My main reservation about the mix of drama and music came with the second part of the program. From Macbeth we had the Witches’ “All Hail Macbeth” scene, along with several others, including Lady Macbeth’s famous hand-washing soliloquy. The music chosen was Richard Strauss’ tone poem Macbeth , but instead of playing it straight through, it was broken up with the dramatic scenes; this prevented the Strauss work from developing momentum and sweep to its fullest extent. Here the violins sounded quite full, the timpanist, horns and other brasses were excellent, and there was a very effective trumpet solo.

After intermission came a Minuet and “Romeo at the Grave of Juliet” from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet , a work ideally suited to a program mixing dramatic excerpts and music. Before the lilting Minuet, we heard the famous Balcony Scene. The desolate and shattering music of the grave scene was preceded by Romeo’s final speech.

Edwards was appropriately insinuating in “Now is the Winter of our discontent.” from Richard III , and Slaby did speeches of both Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York. The concert ended with a striking performance of Bedrich Smetana’s tone poem Richard III . The strings got a real workout and there were excellent solos by the oboe, two bassoons and the horn section.

This program served for the most part as a good model for a successful blend of drama with tone poems, ballet excerpts and overtures. The same approach could be used with operatic arias or larger scenes. There are lots of works based on Shakespeare, and of course Faust is another source that could be mined effectively, given the numerous treatments of that legend in both drama and music.

Saturday, July 14. Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra: Mozart Festival Concert

For this avid concert addict, the evening of July 14 was virtually without blemish. After a pre-concert repast at Fran’s Front Porch, near Julian, the spirit was in turn sated at the EMF with a perfect evening of classical music–Mozart, mostly, spiced with a bit of Haydn. The pièce de résistance was guest conductor David Loebel’s brilliant decision to adopt a true classical seating plan for the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra. He had his first violins seated stage to his left and the second violins on the right. The violas, which tend to have projection problems in other seating arrangements, were behind the first violins; this enhanced the audience’s perception of their sound. The cellos were behind the second violins, and the basses were behind them. This antiphonal arrangement added much by facilitating hearing all the lines of the music, most particularly in the outstanding performance of the final work, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C (“Jupiter”). This has quite a lot of scoring in which the two violin sections have very different parts, and the divided seating of the violins threw these lines into bold relief.

The concert opened with a fine reading of Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto in D with Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer serving as the expressive soloist. Like St. Lawrence String Quartet leader Geoff Nuttall, Multer’s body motion is often distracting, and even when standing still on this occasion he indulged a panoply of facial expressions. A person behind me told her companion she found it so distracting that she just closed her eyes. Multer’s playing was, however, consistently impressive.

I would not have minded being further back in the hall for the program’s second work, Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-Flat. This concerto and Hummel’s, in the same key, are the cornerstones of the classical trumpet repertory that nowadays can overwhelm even large rooms. The brilliant and seamless soloist was Principal trumpeter Mark Niehaus.

Loebel led everything with a marvelous sense of classical style and set convincing tempos that allowed the music to breathe and register. Bravo! At the end of the concert there were many recalls and a richly-deserved standing ovation. I have never heard any of this music sound fresher in a live performance.