A capacity audience was on hand in Dana Auditorium for the first of five Saturday concerts by Eastern Festival Orchestra, the faculty, all-professional ensemble of the Eastern Music Festival. Music Director Gerard Schwarz led his superbly prepared musicians in one of the most un-hackneyed programs I can recall in three decades experience with this festival now in its 49th season. Most of those summers have been spent on the bucolic Guilford College Campus.

Orchestral programs in our state have neglected the French repertoire too much in favor of German and Russian warhorses. Schwarz chose a real rarity, a suite of the musical prelude and interludes from between the acts of the seminal twentieth century opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The late conductor Erich Leinsdorf often toured with an arrangement of this music. Since Claudio Abbado adapted elements of the Leinsdorf edition for his current DGG recording, I assume Schwarz gave us a more expanded, three-part adaptation. The first portion, beginning with the brooding, ominous prelude to this opera about a tragic love triad between brothers Golaud and Pelléas and the mysterious Mélissande, is slow paced. The second section is agitated and threatening while the last one is fast paced and lively and contains the loudest climax. Schwarz’ alert musicians responded instantly to very refined graduation of quiet dynamics and brought out a wide range of orchestral color and texture. A passage pairing violas and bassoons was memorable. Randall Ellis had impressive oboe solos in the second and third sections. The unanimity and richly varied timbre of the string sections was wonderful throughout. Versions of this suite ought to be played more often.

The cello has lacked for great concertos beyond the Dvorák and the Elgar. Cellists have the great virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich to thank for many commissions including Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 107 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), clearly a major addition to the repertoire. It is in four movements. The work opens with the soloist, accompanied by woodwinds, playing a desolate four-note theme derived from, “DSCH” (in German musical notation), the composer’s trademark musical initials or motif. After this material is developed, successive prominence falls to a solo clarinet followed by a solo horn restating the four-note theme. The brusque conclusion is followed by a melancholy and poignant slow movement. Opened by an evocative French horn, the cello and clarinet later share a heart-felt passage. Near the end, the delicate chimes of the celesta are added, leading to the third movement, a brilliant and extended six-minute solo cadenza for cello of remarkable intensity. Over the course of the blustering and swaggering finale, Shostakovich works in a parody of Stalin’s favorite song, “Sulika,” before bringing back material from the concerto’s opening. The music also alludes to “Trepak,” one of Modest Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death in which Death seductively serenades a drunken peasant freezing in a blizzard. Cellist Lynn Harrell played the “bejesus” out of the concerto with the musicians and Schwarz following his every twist and turn. All the irony and in-your-face sass of Shostakovich rant against tyranny were brought out. Among the many fine solos were those given by solo horn Kevin Reid and principal clarinet Shannon Scott.

While the works of Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) are hardly neglected in our concert halls, his Symphony No. 9, “The New World” crowds out performances of several splendid earlier symphonies, especially No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70. This most “Brahmsian” of the composer’s symphonies came as a response to a commission from the London Philharmonic in 1884. Dvořák wanted to extend beyond the Nationalist aspects of his earlier works and to compose a major, serious work in the Central European tradition. Agitated and stormy music dominates the opening movement, the third movement scherzo, and the finale which ends in a triumphant mood. Tension even underlies the slow second movement which opens with a flowing clarinet melody. Schwarz and his musicians played the socks off this masterpiece. Every element of the ensemble was in place and Schwarz kept up the inexorable forward drive of the piece. Each string section played with rich, warm tone. The woodwinds were superb and the brass sections were brilliant throughout, not least in the finale.

Edited/corrected 7/7/10.