One outstanding soloist followed another – each brilliant, each a virtuoso – for the Eastern Music Festival‘s Young Artist Orchestra performances at Guilford College‘s Dana Auditorium this weekend. The audience may be forgiven for its athletic approach to expressing its appreciation – one could have been at a sports tournament given the vociferous roars of approval as all the young artists completed a movement from the concertos which they had played in competition against the very colleagues who now sat behind them in the accompanying orchestras.

This year, eight winners were chosen (compared to the usual six) which made for two long concerts. Each concert included four soloists accompanied by one orchestra  plus a major orchestral work of the 20th century, played by the other orchestra. There were a total of about 180 orchestral musicians in attendance this summer, as well as over a dozen pianists and even more guitarists! Plus eight conducting fellows!

Thursday night (July 28)

Thursday night’s concert began with long-time resident conductor José-Luis Novo conducting the student orchestra in four works, starting with the entire Vivaldi Bassoon Concerto in E minor, RV. 484, elegantly played by Colorado resident, 21-year-old Juliette Angoulvant. After a bit of a tug-of-war over tempos (our soloist pulling for faster), things settled into a charming dialog between soloist and string orchestra. In the second of the three movements, Angoulvant showed us the deep rich timber of the bassoon as well as her spot-on accuracy of pitch in a register prone to sounding sharp. Cellist Katie Capp on the continuo part admirably seconded her in solo passages.

Swapping out the harpsichord for the next soloist’s harp, the orchestra strings reshuffled themselves to play Claude Debussy’s charming Danses Sacrée et Profane. There was an exquisite delicacy to the string playing at the opening of the 9-minute work. Soloist Grace Roepke, 19, from Minnesota was the nimble and charming soloist in these two movements. Impeccable fingering and footwork (seven pedals to constantly change to either a flat, natural or sharp position according to the music) made this one of the best performances of this work I have heard.

Next the stage filled with winds and brass players as well as a doubled contingency of strings for Romantic composer Antonín Dvořák’s heroic masterpiece, the Cello Concerto, Op. 104. Fifteen-year-old Drew Dansby from Charlotte, NC was the soloist, and except for a raspy note at the very beginning, he was outstanding, bringing down the house at the end of this lengthy movement. He had work to do in this concerto where numerous orchestral mistakes could have subverted his concentration. But no, with beautiful tone and intonation, he dominated the piece and delivered it with power and emotion.

Not to be outdone, the final soloist of the evening, Donald Lee, 22, from Hampton VA, played one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertory, Franz Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death) which makes liberal use of the Latin hymn Dies Irae (Day of Wrath: “The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes,” referring to the Last Judgment) in the most imaginative ways. Looking (and sounding) powerful as he pounded out the bass notes of the evocative theme, he soon proved to have an extraordinary technique as he glided through arpeggios and chromaticisms apparently effortlessly and tirelessly. The sheer volume of sound yielded to delicate pianissimi while the orchestra kept up valiantly! Lee brought down the house and caused the fourth standing ovation of the evening.

After intermission, the other resident conductor, Grant Cooper, leading the other student orchestra, put in one of his best performances as he led his young charges through an excellent performance of Witold Lutos­ławski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Considerably shorter (28 minutes vs. 36 minutes) than the other concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartok, it is nonetheless a gripping work, especially in the shorter first two movements. The first movement is dominated by an ostinato, played early by the timpani and later, in the opposite tessitura, by the piccolo, while strings and winds play contrapuntally, commented upon by the brass. The second movement gives us shimmering tiny nibbles of melody, sotto voce, until a trumpet and trombone chorale intervenes. The third movement is long and seemed unbalanced, perhaps because the young musicians impetuously built the climax too early in the movement to justify its length. The no-nonsense straightforward conducting style of Maestro Cooper worked superbly in this piece, balancing clarity and economy of gesture with expressiveness and warmth. The performance was rewarded by a standing ovation and the traditional “last concert of the season” ritual of asking each section to stand on its own to receive the audience’s applause.

Friday night (July 29)

The following evening, Cooper started the concert with four more Concerto Competition winners, again beginning with a bassoonist. Hailing from France, Grâce Andrianjatovo, 21, played a charming Concertino in B-flat by the relatively obscure Finnish composer, Bernard Henrik Crusell (1775-1838), a highly respected clarinetist as well as a composer. Perhaps the best description of this concerto would be “flamboyant,” full of extremely rapid passages, tongued as well as slurred, which our soloist excelled at, living fully up to the promise of her name!

The second soloist was familiar as one of the concertmasters, 18-year-old Yejoo Esther Lee from Mississippi, playing the last movement of the familiar Violin Concerto in D, Opus 35 by P. I. Tchaikovsky, which she nailed! The conductor carefully held down the orchestra, allowing the soloist to shine forth. I found myself wishing for more resonance in the hall – and perhaps a stronger-sounding instrument in the hands of the soloist.

Rare are the trombone concertos in the repertory, and even rarer those for bass trombone; perhaps it “takes one to write one!” This is the case of Chris Brubeck, bass trombonist, composer and jazz musician and the son of jazz legend, Dave Brubeck. Dorian Tate, 21, from Texas, was our soloist, playing the third movement of the concerto subtitled James Brown in the Twilight Zone. Tate was impressive, starting with a solo cadenza and gradually interacting with the orchestra. Bit by bit the orchestral brass started sounding like a big band and the audience loved it!

Yao-Yueh Jimmy Tseng, 17, from Taiwan, played what turned out to be a somewhat anti-climactic ending to the first half – not because he didn’t play well, which he did – superbly, in fact – but because the audience was saturated by then with pyrotechnics and jazzy flashy moments. Be that as it may, he played stupendously the Finale of Serge Prokofiev’s flashy Third Piano Concerto, which is a virtuoso vehicle if ever there was one!

Maestro Novo, now in his 18th season at the Eastern Music Festival, took the podium with the other student orchestra for a rousing performance of the “other” Concerto for Orchestra, the prototype, composed in 1943 by Béla Bartók. This was an excellent performance of one of the 20th century’s masterpieces. Flutes were brilliant both as a couple and with offspring at the recapitulation. One only wished for more careful tuning by the brass players and better blend of sonorities of trumpet and trombones in the chorale of the second movement. Vibrato interfered with the coldness of the “night music” in the third movement but the dreamy ponticello sequence near the end of the Finale was superb. Bravo!

The tenth standing ovation in two days greeted the final notes of the concert while the students took their farewell bows under the guidance of Maestro Novo.