Parents swelled the ranks of the regular audience in Dana Auditorium as the Eastern Music Festival approaches the end of its 50th Anniversary Season with a pair of performances highlighting this year’s Concerto Competition winners. Three soloists were featured in the first half of tonight’s concert, ably accompanied by their classmates under the thoughtful direction of veteran EMF conductor, José Luis Novo.

Tonight’s concert opened with the first movement of the only Bassoon Concerto that Mozart wrote, in B-flat Major, KV 191. Looking as slender as his bassoon, Dillon Meacham, a rising sophomore at the Peabody Institute (Baltimore), majoring in music performance, absolutely dominated his instrument. He played this masterpiece with a warm dark sound, a lovely vibrato and impressive staccato tonguing. Stratospheric horns stood out from an otherwise well balanced orchestra.

Our second soloist, Nathan Lowry has already appeared on these pages as one of the subjects of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s Master Class on July 8, 2011. Gifted with a musical fluency and technical proficiency unusual in a high school student, Mr. Lowry leads me to expect great things (even though this evening’s performance was not his best work – he seemed in a hurry so some musical effects became blurred). And the orchestra was plagued by a horn and a bassoon tuned painfully higher than the rest of the orchestra.

The third soloist, short and timid-looking pianist, Motohiro Usami, turned out to be anything but timid once he attacked the “Totentanz” by Franz Liszt with its ubiquitous Dies Irae, the Latin hymn which figures prominently in the Requiem Mass for the Dead. Used by many composers from Berlioz to Rachmaninoff, perhaps no composer has wrung as many possible versions from the simple theme as Liszt. A welcome modulation and change of character from the low pounding of the theme opened a new vista and a breath of fresh air. There followed a variation using repeated notes and then, without dropping a note, a fugato incorporating those repeated notes. Even I, who am not an aficionado of the florid pianisms which populate Liszt’s music, was impressed by Mr. Usami’s abilities. He is a senior at the Oberlin Conservatory. And he merited the standing ovation the shouting audience accorded him.

During intermission, the first orchestra packed up and the other student orchestra took its place for a pair of crowd-pleasers, Saint-Saëns’ voluptuous Bacchanal from the opera Samson et Dalila and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The Festival’s Assistant Conductor, Eric Garcia, who also fulfills the same function with the Seattle Symphony, conducted. He will accompany the other three Concerto Competition winners on Friday night. His technique is clear and he cues musical events rhythmically. He has an unusual manner of bowing to the audience with the baton held at opposite ends with both hands, a gesture I remember well from Igor Markevich.

Perhaps student fatigue and over-scheduling in the waning days of the festival are to blame, but for the first time in my experience of this year, the student orchestra sounded like students – hasty playing of solos and ineffective balance (loud horns in Bacchanal), sloppy entrances (cellos and violas in the beginning of the 1812), and intonation problems (flat piccolo, sharp bassoon), all added to this impression. Fortunately, the popularity of the pieces allowed the audience to overlook any defects and the effort earned another standing ovation.