As the 54th iteration of the Eastern Music Festival drew to a close, the final two student orchestra performances featured three concerto competition winners each, as well as a block-buster work from the symphonic repertory. First, it must be said that the six winners were all superb musicians and merited the cheers and applause of their colleagues, teachers, and other well-wishers who packed into Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College. Conducting duties were shared by both Grant Cooper and Eric Garcia, and both student orchestras played in each concert, concertos one night and block-busters the other.

Opening Thursday night’s concert was the unlikely presence of double-bassist William Karnes, 20, from Texas, playing the even more unlikely Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20, of Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). Originally, these “Gypsy Airs” were written to demonstrate the most far-out techniques possible on the violin; Karnes transcribed them for the gigantic double bass (four times the useful length of the violin) yet lost none of the passion, charm, and virtuosity of the original violin work. This was outstanding bass playing!

He was followed by a performance of the first movement of the iconic Clarinet Concerto in A, K.622, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). After a somewhat ragged opening by the orchestra, Alec Manasse took musical charge of the familiar concerto and delivered a stunning performance, note-perfect yet imbued with warmth and subtle expression far beyond the young New Yorker’s 16 years! And what a gorgeous tone!

Not to be outdone, Tennessean Alex Willborn, 21, delivered a brilliant performance of Alexander Arutunian’s (1920-2012) 1950 masterpiece, the Concerto for Trumpet in A-flat, a somewhat exotic-sounding work in one continuous movement. Whether playing all-out “forte” or gently muted, Willborn always retained control over the tone and character of the piece, even in the schizophrenic cadenza and somewhat abrupt ending!

After intermission, the other student orchestra, led by Garcia, filled the stage for the performance of one of the 20th century’s most popular orchestral works, Paul Hindemith’s (1895-1963) Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, written in 1943 and beloved by orchestras the world over. Although always a crowd-pleaser, this was a somewhat nonchalant and lack-luster performance, monolithically loud in the first movement, some sloppy horn passages in the second movement, and a ho-hum final march (Marsch). One stand-out was the well-played flowery elaborations of flutist Sarah Benton in the reprise of the theme in the third movement (Andantino).


The following night, Friday, July 31, the orchestras and conductors reversed roles, the so-called Eastern Symphony Orchestra accompanying the concertos under the direction of Garcia. Again, three outstanding young virtuosi graced the stage at Dana Auditorium, starting with 16-year-old Oregonian Grace Rosier playing the first movement of the 5th Violin Concerto of Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-81), an early proponent of the Belgo-French school of violin-playing that ultimately produced such virtuosos as Eugène Ysaÿe, Arthur Grumiaux, and Yehudi Menuhin. Slender and delicate, Rosier nonetheless produced a robust and romantic tone well suited to the Vieuxtemps. And her flying up-bow “spiccato” was spectacular!

She was followed by the 20-year-old Chicagoan Haley Jensen, who played the pointillist yet tonal Clarinet Concerto (1966) by American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976). This piece was a revelation: Jensen mastered the difficulties and delivered a convincing and attractive performance of a work I had never heard before.

She was followed by 20-year-old Beijing native, currently studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Rixiang Huang, who gave a bang-up performance of the first movement of one of the staples of the 20th century repertory, the Third Piano Concerto by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Huang was brilliant and rose to every challenge of this difficult piece. One only wished that the large orchestra had controlled itself dynamically, allowing the pianistic subtleties to be better heard, especially in the beginning of the work.

After intermission, the Guilford Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of usually tame and suave conductor Cooper, unleashed an unbridled performance of the often-barbaric Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Principal clarinetist Guillermo Ramasasa was outstanding, if a bit fast, in the seduction scenes; the trombones were fabulous, as was the entire viola section. This masterwork of the last century ranks with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps in the pantheon of contemporary music!


And a Dividend: Conducting Fellows in Open House Concert, July 26, 2015

This year, for the first time in recent memory, the Eastern Music Festival opened its doors and considerable musical resources to nine young conductors. Under the direction of Maestro Gerard Schwarz and assisted by resident conductors Grant Cooper and Eric Garcia, the young maestros were featured in a noon-time concert performance of the Eastern Festival Orchestra, the faculty ensemble that is one of the best orchestras in the country. In a way, this was a double-edged sword, for the orchestra produced superb performances, sometimes, despite the conductors. One wonders how the young conductors would have fared with less experienced musicians to back them up.

To be sure, there were a couple of impressive conductors – Ho-Yin Kwok was outstanding in his attention to detail and his command of the “big picture” in Felix Mendelssohn’s  “Hebrides” Overture. And Kevin Fitzgerald also commanded the big picture but appeared to gloss over many details of Hector Berlioz’ “Carnaval romain.” Both conductors clearly knew their scores well, conducting by memory. One looks forward to the further development of this nascent program.