One of my earliest profound musical experiences occurred when Thor Johnson conducted the U. of Iowa high school summer music camp orchestra (in which I played oboe) in Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony. Such music! And in turn, I helped the students at the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, CO, to experience a similar high in their stunning performance of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite.

Surely, this performance of Shostakovich’s monumental 11th Symphony will live forever in the minds of the 100 musicians on stage at Dana Auditorium at the Eastern Music Festival. Lasting a full hour, with no break between movements, the performance skated between anger and grief, mind-numbing loudness and the most treacherously fragile pianissimos, yet it always remained just within the limits separating control from mayhem. Michael Tilson Thomas once described a thrilling performance as “skating out to the thinnest film of black and spongy ice and calmly returning to safety!”

This was just such a performance and guest conductor David Lockington was roundly applauded by his orchestra, as well as by the audience, for his role as the leader of this adventure. The performance went off without a hitch except when the air-handler (in A-flat) drowned out the super-pianissimo pizzicatos in the cellos and basses at the end of the third movement. Kudos to Miriam Friedman (20, Rock Tavern, NY) for her magnificent English horn solo (ending high up in the stratospheric register) in the last movement, “Tocsin (Alarm). Among others shining in this performance was the entire viola section, warm and rich in the opening of the third movement, “In Memoriam.”

The 11th Symphony is subtitled  “The Year 1905” and depicts chronologically the events leading up to “Bloody Sunday,” the massacre of unarmed peasants who had collected in front of the winter palace of Tsar Nicholas II to petition for relief from a list of grievances. Indeed, the symphony is often described as a film score without the film. It is a profoundly moving piece to hear live in the concert hall and even more moving to the young performers.

The first half of the concert included a rare opportunity to hear a concerto for the tuba. The work, commissioned by the widow of an amateur tubist, was composed by the Seattle Symphony’s Composer-in Residence, Samuel Jones, and premiered by the orchestra in 2006, featuring that orchestra’s tubist, the EMF’s guest soloist, Christopher Olka.

The first movement opens and closes with dramatic, if short, solos by the tuba, all alone. Played much higher than I have ever heard the tuba in many passages, it often took on the character of a flugelhorn or even that of a fat rich [French] horn. Seated on a soft piano bench between the conductor and the cello section, tall and lanky Olka nursed the big brassy baby on his lap tenderly, pausing discretely during the dramatic orchestral interludes to “dump” condensation out of the labyrinth of pipework that comprises the modern tuba.

The second movement featured a beautiful long lyrical melody by the soloist, under very high muted strings in a lilting 6/8 rhythm. The lyricism was interrupted several times by the angry interjections of the trumpets and trombones. Later the roles were reversed, with the woodwinds singing the long lyrical phrases interrupted by the tuba’s angry grumbles. The movement ended with the soloist on a very low, soft and almost rumbling pedal note.

The third movement is a rollicking frolic which shows the tuba to be as nimble as a flute: indeed, the excellent flutes and piccolo played many of the fleet tuba passages in “unison” with the tuba, a remarkable effect!  This was an ear-filling and eye-opening performance, revealing the virtuosity of the soloist, Christopher Olka., the unbelievable versatility of the tuba and a delightful new concerto.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s dramatic Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62. Apart from some unclean string attacks, the performance was clean and well-played, especially the many long cello and viola arpeggio sections which eventually lead to the climax of the work and the tragic coda. Some of the balance of the score was lost as the huge string section drowned out the woodwinds in every crescendo and loud passage. Rather than cutting down the strings (and depriving some students of a learning experience) perhaps Maestro Lockington could have adopted the old practice of doubling the woodwinds. Nonetheless, it was a great opening for a memorable concert.

Cecile Licad in Master Class

Earlier the same afternoon (Friday, July 11, 2008) the international piano virtuoso, Cecile Licad, presided over a master class featuring three excellent young talents, before a smallish audience of students and music-lovers. The unfortunate placement and angle of the pianos disfavored the audience which had to bunch up in a corner both to see the keyboard and to try to hear the comments offered by the low-pitched master teacher. But when one could hear, the comments were meaningful and reinforced the main idea of last week’s master class with Midori: making music is more about telling the “story of the entire work” or expressing the “message of that passage” than about volume, speed and intensity, or even about the soloist as a separate entity.

Fang-Wei Hsu (17, Taipei, Taiwan) opened the class with Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death), a set of variations with orchestral accompaniment (ably played on the second piano by Rick Masters) on the well-known theme of the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). Already an accomplished musician at 17, she played with power and urgency. Ms. Licad’s comments addressed pacing and contrast: “Make it more interesting…” “Alternate the accents – avoid the regular, predictable…” “It doesn’t all have to be loud” “Music is an experiment – get into the moment…”  “For the listeners, it is more interesting if they have to wonder [how you might play the next passage]” and one item of technical advice, which carries a bit of psychology in it, “Sit up straight, make yourself taller…” and, gesturing to the length of the keyboard, “…Control the whole thing.”

Next came Robin Jenkens (19, House Springs, MO) who had accompanied her sister, Holly, in Ravel’s Tzigane last week. She played a set of Rachmaninoff variations on Fritz Kreisler’s familiar Liebesfreud. She, too, is a gifted pianist, apparently endowed with curiosity and passion. After congratulating her, Ms. Licad repeated several times, “This is difficult…really difficult,” referring to Rachmaninoff’s work, which Ms. Licad specializes in. She cautioned patience and timing, “Don’t even think of playing the next note until this one [is assimilated]”  “Take time to dive in – when the wave is right.”  “Use the rests, musically.”  The entire audience gasped when Robin replied, “One month” to Ms. Licad’s question about how long she had been studying the Rachmaninoff.

Then Irina Arbatskaya (20, Odessa, Ukraine) played the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K.330. It was sparkling and liquid. After the applause, Ms. Licad congratulated her and asked why she brought such a finely polished work to a master class. Together they discussed alternate approaches to the work, which Ms. Licad implied, might be too smooth. They talked about experimenting with different styles (“Play in the moment”) and finally Irina was persuaded to play the other two movements of the sonata. Although she had not touched them in more than two months, they were equally sparkling and smooth. The class ended at 6 p.m. with applause.

There are more master classes. For details, click here.