With increased scholarship money, the Eastern Music Festival is able to draw from the pool of the most talented young players available. And since there are now around 200 students in attendance, the festival fields two large orchestras and, with some over lapping, can add extra players for the major Romantic and early 20th-century masterpieces. For the July 6 concert in Dana Auditorium, the stage was packed, not only with extra strings but also with added woodwinds and brass, including nine horns. These forces were firmly directed by José-Luis Novo. Lush Romantic music dominated the first half of the concert. The other half held one of the greatest and most pivotal works of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.

Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) combined an orchestra of Wagnerian proportions and Wagnerian leitmotiv technique with folk-like melodies in the Overture to his opera Hansel und Gretel. Novo made the most of the work’s dichotomy, the contrast of brass-woodwind portions set against plush strings. Unison brass, soon joined by the woodwinds, evoked the ominous forest. The strings’ folk-like melodies conjure up the children’s dancing and playing. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” inspired the swirling music that accompanies the Witch’s flight. The famous “Prayer” of Hansel and Gretel is suggested by a richly-scored chorale. Ensemble within the sections was excellent.

The strings were radiant in the Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. In Wagner’s “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, Novo gauged dynamics closely, pacing and phrasing with great style. His choice of tempos allowed the music maximum impact. The high level of the students’ musicianship was evident in the often-professional level of the first chair solos. The important oboe and English horn solos were outstanding and the cellos “breathed” their portrayal of the lover’s passions as one.

The premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913, was one of the most notorious events in music history – the audience rioted with catcalls and fisticuffs. The story of the ballet is human sacrifice – a young virgin dances herself to death. The music evokes the primitive with themes that Edward Downes describes as “narrow-gauge melodies,” with long stretches of accompaniment formed by “tiny ostinato figures.” The harmonies are often sharply dissonant, and long static sections suggest the drone of bagpipes. Unusual meters add to the difficulty. For years The Rite of Spring was a challenge taken up by only top-ranked orchestras; regional and smaller orchestras turned to it only in the latter half of the 20th century as it became a common part of conservatory training.

José-Luis Novo and his accomplished and enthusiastic young musicians played the socks off The Rite. All the string sections were in sync, following every shift in dynamics or meter. Important solos for bassoon, bass clarinet, clarinet, horn, trumpet, and bass drum were fully worthy of the adjective “professional.” Novo’s control of phrasing helped sustain and build up the intensity of the piece. He took great care to have important soloists and sections stand in turn to share the prolonged and fervent applause.