Seating was at a premium in Dana Auditorium for the final concert of the Eastern Music Festival. The all-faculty Eastern Philharmonic was on stage, ready to play a program that was nothing if not enterprising. Conductor Gerard Schwarz was among the three speakers who praised President and CEO Thomas Philon’s successful seven-year tenure that brought the organization back from the brink of financial ruin to its current broad artistic and fiscal success. Philon has taken the position of Executive Director of the Seattle Symphony but will continue to devote some time to the EMF as Artistic Advisor.

Bright Sheng is one of the most promising and successful composers of the current generation.  Born in Shanghai, China, in 1955, he was graduated from high school just in time to get shipped off to work as a pianist and timpanist in a music-dance company in the remote province of Chinhai during the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao. He has benefited from exposure to the folk songs and dances of the region, a fertile source of musical inspiration. Sheng has been widely praised for his ability to meld elements of both Eastern and Western music into a winning  personal style. Area music lovers may remember the Spoleto Festival USA’s staging of his multi-cultural theater piece The Silver River in 2000. He also appeared on the Spoleto Chamber Music Series, playing keyboard for his piano trio, “Four Movements” (1990). He is currently composer-in-residence for the New York City Ballet.

Bright Sheng spoke from the stage, giving background for his ballet The Nightingale and the Rose (2007), based on a darkly ironic story by Oscar Wilde. The ballet was having its world premiere as a separate, stand-alone concert piece. In the story, a lovelorn student must get his beloved a red rose in the winter time. A nightingale sacrifices herself by allowing a rosebush’s thorn to pierce her heart to provide blood for the plant to produce a red rose. The bird dies and the student takes the rose to the girl who says it does not match her dress — and a rival has given her jewels. The rejected student tosses the rose on the ground where it is trampled. He is completely unaware of the bird’s sacrifice and goes to study philosophy. Sheng described several of the instrumental combinations that represent the nightingale’s love songs and her pain as the thorn stabs deeper.

Schwarz led a superb performance of the ballet music, skillfully balanced, with precise attacks and careful phrasing. The love songs of the nightingale have an unusual scoring for woodwinds and trombone above pizzicato strings. His choices of instrumentation were never less than intriguing. Harsh dissonance marked deeper pricking of the rose’s thorn. The musicians brought out the wide palette of Sheng’s orchestral colors.

Full performances Ravel’s complete ballet music Daphnis and Chloe (1912) are very rare. Guest conductor Laurent Petitgirard led the North Carolina Symphony and choruses in a pair of concerts in 1997. During the 2003 Spoleto Festival USA, music director Emmanuel Villaume led the Festival Orchestra in one performance. Before the composer could get a full staging of the ballet, he drew up three suites. The Second Suite, comprising the entire closing scene, is often performed and recorded. The other two are rare birds indeed. The First Suite contains music from the first half of the ballet, and its music is little known to most music lovers. It was both imaginative and enterprising of Schwarz to program Suites 1 and 2 of Daphnis and Chloe together. He led a superb performance with gorgeous, refined playing from every section of the orchestra. The pp passages were truly quiet, and all of the woodwind playing was breath-taking. The brass and percussion were ideally balanced and controlled. The ravishing flute solo in the Second Suite was played by Les Roettges. Fine shorter solos were given by Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer and Principal Cello Neal Cary.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, is one of the all-time most popular warhorses. It is a centerpiece of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow; winning the Gold Medal was both a boon and a bane to the career of Van Cliburn. The EMF’s guest soloist, Barry Douglas, who won the 1986 Gold Medal, has been more successful at avoiding musical typecasting by playing a wider repertoire including chamber music. The main problem with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is that it has a terrific introduction but the rest of the work is less riveting. Pianists who can sustain the more intimate portions of the score may not have the chops to deliver the introduction with power and authority. Not every powerhouse virtuoso can make the bulk of the score interesting. I have lost count of how many times I have heard routine or worse performances of this work. Douglas’ interpretation and playing immediately grabbed the listener and never once let interest flag. Douglas combined extraordinary power with beautiful tone in the thunderous introduction. In much of the rest of the concerto, he set an unbelievably fast pace yet articulated passages with astonishing clarity. Reflective episodes were given their due without any hint of dragging. Schwarz and his agile and alert musicians provided ideal accompaniment, keeping in step with Douglas, turning instantly with every change. I have never heard the concerto better played, and there have been precious few performances that have come close to Douglas’. What a perfect way to cap a very successful EMF season!