The last day of the Eastern Music Festival has always featured a matinee concert featuring the student musicians and an evening concert with the professional musicians, often with the added attraction of a major soloist or a prominent guest conductor – or both.

Dana Auditorium was filled with EMF students’ family members ready to hear their students strut their stuff in light orchestral showpieces during the July 31 matinee concert. Each half of the concert featured entirely different student orchestras.

Snappy rhythms and colorful orchestrations were features of two works directed by José-Luis Novo. Gershwin’s Cuban Overture gave the percussionists lots to do, using gourds, rattles, and bongos in addition to the standard timpani and drums. There were fine solos played by the principal bassoon, oboe, and trumpet, and the bass clarinetists’ trills were memorable.

Copland’s El Salón México marked the beginning of his “populist” period. Novo got the students to play like a drunken band during a marvelous sequence. The persistent metric displacements were well executed. Significant solos were given by the concertmistress, bassoon, and clarinet. The trumpet solos were strongly characterized, at times evoking a Mariachi band.

After intermission, Scott Sandmeier led a splendid performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2. Woodwinds, with a prominent plethora of agile flutes, were at the heart of the daybreak sequence. From the precise high harmonics of the violins to the sumptuous violas, cellos, and double basses, all the string sections were outstanding. Ravel would surely have been pleased with the luxury of three harps. The muted trumpets were marvelous.

The presence of guest conductor Stefan Sanderling, who had been in the original group of potential candidates for Music Director of the NC Symphony, added extra interest to the EMF’s final concert, given in Dana auditorium July 31. He withdrew from his Raleigh concerts well in advance because he had accepted the top post of the Florida Orchestra. Before that, he served as Chief Conductor of the Orchestra de Bretagne in Rennes, France, and Music Director of the Staatstheater and the Philharmonic Orchestra in Mainz, Germany. Record collectors know him from a number of recordings made in Europe for the ASV, Naxos, and Tring International labels. His father, Kurt Sanderling, was a conductor with a near-mythical status, thanks to his recordings with former Communist-bloc orchestras.

The EMF concert opened with a solid performance of Smetana’s “The Moldau,” from Má Vlast. The orchestral balances were fine, and the interpretation was straightforward, although there was perhaps too much loss of momentum in the slow portion, before the piece ended. During the opening, there was delightful precision from the flutes and oboes, and the orchestral playing was outstanding. The violin pizzicatos were trenchant, and the viola and cello sections produced a rich sonority.

Dvorák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53, was written when the composer’s star was rising. At the time he was immersed in the Slavonic Dances, the Czech Suite and the Slavonic Rhapsodies. Joseph Joachim, to whom it was dedicated, made a plethora of suggestions during the prolonged period of its composition, but he never played the work. In the BBC Music Guide to Dvorák’s Symphonies and Concertos, Robert Layton describes the Violin Concerto as being “rich in bold ideas, many of folk-inspired origin with strong leaps and sturdy contours…, far removed from the pale, academic… Piano Concerto.” He speculates that Joachim, ” an arch-traditionalist,” was “genuinely unhappy with its irregularities of formal layout, particularly that of the first movement.” While he admits that it is “undeniably out of balance,” Layton asserts that “no one can deny that its ideas are of the very highest quality.”

A listener can have all doubts swept away when he is transported by a soloist who can play it with absolute conviction and passionate commitment. EMF Artist-in-Residence Julia Fischer is such a musician. With a marvelous full tone and seemingly effortless technique, she cast a spell over both audience and orchestra. Unlike many visiting virtuosos, Fischer plays everything with the active engagement of a first rate chamber musician, listening and responding to soloists within the orchestra. This once under-recorded and seldom-performed concerto has received a lot of performances in the Triad and the Triangle in the last several seasons. None have been better than Fischer’s. Sanderling balanced the orchestra with the soloist ideally, and his accompaniment fit like a glove.

The concert ended with terrific performances of ten numbers from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64. The selections, from the three separate Suites, were arranged roughly to reflect the sequence of events in the Shakespeare play, with some stylized dances used for contrast. Sanderling secured orchestral playing of great virtuosity and commitment from every section. His mastery was immediately evident in the perfection of all the strands of the wrenching opening, “Montagues et Capulets,” with its crashing waves of brass and percussion. The string sections played with such unity that they seemed to be a quintet. The professional orchestra at this year’s festival has been the finest yet.

In contrast to the very public searches for music directors by the Charlotte Symphony, the NCS, and currently, the Winston-Salem Symphony, the EMF has undertaken a very low-key search for a principal conductor. Thomas Philion, EMF President and CEO, told me that while they hoped to be able to name someone this year, there is no artificial or self-imposed deadline. The principal conductor will be in charge of about half the festival’s concerts.