As July reaches its end, the Eastern Music Festival approaches its climax, part of which is the performance of the students who have been designated as the Concerto Competition winners. Over 250 students attended the 2022 festival from countries as far away as Uzbekistan, Scotland, China, and Iran. Six were chosen as winners after playing auditions some three weeks ago. A program order was decided on factors which included the natural temperament and orchestration of the pieces chosen, as well as timings. As it turned out this year, two pianists were chosen (leading to the idea of opening and closing with appropriate piano works), two woodwind players, one brass, and one string soloist. Conductors were designated, one for each half of the concert as well as which of the two student orchestras would play which half of the concert. All the soloists played from memory.

Frédéric Chopin wrote two piano concertos, the earliest at age 19, but which waited a while to be published and subsequently acquired the title of Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Opus 21. Ann Gao, 17 years old, from Maumelle, Arkansas was the soloist and José-Luis Novo the conductor. Gao played with a lovely and sensitive “touche,” especially in the softer passages. I am used to a more relaxed rubato, especially on those fourth beats where Chopin crowds a handful of notes while the left hand maintains a modicum of rhythmic structure. I think of such passages as expressive rather than technical. The audience granted her a well deserved standing ovation!

Tall, lithe, with long hair styled in ringlets, Brooke Walden, 19, from Westfield, NJ played a piece from the French repertory, Fantaisie pour flute by George Hüe, composed in 1913, originally for flute and piano and orchestrated ten years later. There is a tradition in the French national conservatories that requires students to include a recently written pièce de concert in their final recital; such is the origin of this Fantasy.

Walden has a lovely tone on the flute, with a rich steady vibrato and wide range of dynamics, which was nonetheless a bit too soft to be heard over the large orchestra in some of the lower passages of the flute. This is a lyrical piece, teeming with slurred arpeggios. I wish someone had suggested to M. Hüe some fancy staccato tonguing passages to furnish a spicy contrast to these arpeggios. I was unprepared for the outrageously loud cheer that followed the last note of the Flute Fantasy; all the balcony was filled with cheering and shouting classmates and friends!

It took a few moments of repositioning the seating as the orchestration changed and the new musicians took a fresh “A,” for the air to clear enough that the cold and distant opening of Jean Sibelius’ rarified Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47 could be heard on its own terms. This is a very popular concerto in our time, but for the first 50 years after it was composed (1904-5) it was rarely played. Victoria Bramble, 19, from West Palm Beach, FL was our violin soloist in this difficult concerto – it is perhaps one of the most difficult concertos for the orchestra to play and equally difficult to conduct, as the slow tempos require much changing the subdivisions of the beat – not unlike the frequent gear shifting required to drive in mountainous terrain. Bramble’s opening tone was exquisitely icy enough to convey the long Scandinavian winter night, warming up for the brilliant passage work in the extended coda. Her technique is superb as is her tone, Brava!

During intermission, I watch the fascinating reshuffling of the chairs on stage as the new conductor, Grant Cooper, prefers to have the cellos in a different place and so their chairs had to be exchanged. Cellists sit on the front third of the chair and hold the cello partially with their legs, necessitating a special chair.

The first soloist of the second half was the dynamic and brilliant Grace O’Connell, trumpeter par excellence! She was dressed in a sleeveless emerald green dress that sparkled as she moved. And indeed she sparkled as she played – brilliant and delicate, smooth and expressive, strong and clear, with a hint of tender vibrato to add to lyrical passages when she wanted. She played the first movement of the Trumpet Concerto in F minor, Opus 18 by German composer, Oskar Böhme.

For the next piece, the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland, the composer requires only a string orchestra plus harp and piano. We were treated to the entire piece, which consists of two movements: “Slowly and Expressively,” and “Rather Fast,” played exquisitely by Jonathan Decker, 22, from Falmouth, Maine.

The first movement is very lyrical, even somewhat more romantic than we usually credit Copland. The clarinet and the orchestra were well-balanced and Decker has a beautiful tone, although I wouldn’t have minded if he had added a hint of vibrato from time to time. (This is somewhat controversial – non-vibrato players are often adamant or even vehement.) Then came the short, brilliant cadenza which bridges the two movements – and Decker sprang to life, punctuating the accents with forceful chopping movements, shifting directions – all in the service of the music, getting more exciting as the piece went on. This was a fantastic performance of a brilliant and quirky piece!

We waited for the piano to be returned to the stage for the final piece, the first movement of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 16, played by 16-year-old Andrew Reveno of Atlanta, Georgia. The first movement is marked Allegro molto moderato (quarter note = 84), so I was surprised at the fast clip Reveno took at the beginning. However, the contrast between the themes was great and the playing very precise at all times. I had hoped for a more powerful conclusion to the awesome cadenza Grieg puts into the end of the movement, but finally all seemed to match well. I look forward to hearing the mature adult Reveno will turn into – the youth is full of promise!