The first performance of the Eastern Music Festival‘s faculty and student orchestras took place Friday night in Dana Auditorium. The large crowd was treated to two works in the key of D (could this have been by accident?). The orchestras, having rehearsed less than a week, presented two giant compositions from the repertoire: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Op. 61 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, Op. 73.

In 1806, Beethoven (1770-1827) composed his only violin concerto; it was a year that saw several major compositions from the composer. The three-movement concerto is in the traditional fast-slow-fast arrangement, and the first performance took place in Vienna.

At the podium was EMF music director Gerard Schwarz leading the Eastern Festival Orchestra, comprised of the EMF faculty. The soloist was EMF concertmaster and 20-year EMF veteran Jeffrey Multer. In some ways, it was a lovefest – with one of the orchestra’s own playing with friends.

The opening is subdued, beginning with five mysterious timpani strokes. A terrific wind section is then heard – intonation and ensemble lovely. During the opening orchestral exposition, Multer played along some, perhaps to dispel some nerves, maybe to make sure he was in tune, or maybe to join with his colleagues.

His opening solo work displayed an elegant, clean sound; not as hearty or beefy as some other violinists, but with a timbre that cut through the orchestra throughout the concerto. One must praise his graceful, lyric playing and the final notes of several phrases that concluded with extreme sensitivity. Not that his passionate playing wasn’t as impressive; he easily negotiated the fiendishly difficult virtuosic passages.

It seemed that Maestro Schwarz and Multer were in no hurry to get anywhere: the opening Allegro non troppo seemed a little slow to me, although during sweeping, dramatic passages Maestro Schwarz pushed the music forward, creating brilliant climaxes. The second movement Larghetto provided calm and lyricism before the rambunctious Rondo bursts on the scene. Spirited playing from both soloist and orchestra characterized the conclusion, and ensemble between the two was spot on, thanks to Schwarz’s attentive direction.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) came to symphonic composition rather late in his career, penning his First Symphony when he was in his 40s, the reason being the “shadow of Beethoven” that loomed over all composers in the 19th century. Nonetheless, once the First was out of the way, the Second was soon to follow; it is one of the composers most pastoral works, albeit tinged with Brahms’ characteristic melancholy.

The 150+ orchestral students who attend EMF all play in one of two orchestras: the Eastern or the Guilford Young Artists Symphony Orchestra. The first two movements of the Brahms were performed by the Eastern orchestra while the last two movements featured the Guilford orchestra. The changing of the guard allowed for a five-minute break in the symphony, something Brahms would probably never have thought of. Leading both student orchestras was Schwarz, whose focused direction helped shape and clarify passages for the musicians, many of whom were probably playing the Brahms for the first time.

The student performance was entirely credible, quite a feat considering the limited number of rehearsals each ensemble had. Indeed, there was some terrific playing, especially the horn and brass playing from the Guilford orchestra and the ensemble work of the strings of the Eastern orchestra. To be sure, there were some intonation problems as well as ensemble issues and occasional flubs, but nothing that detracted from the overall joy of music making.

The student orchestras play every Thursday and Friday nights for the next four weeks; the faculty orchestra is featured on Saturdays. All are worth hearing.

For more information on upcoming summer events with EMF, see our calendar.