The heavy hitters have returned to Greensboro, the 55th summer for the Eastern Music Festival. The opening salvo from the Eastern Festival Orchestra, directed by Gerard Schwarz, featured the distinguished pianist Awadagin Pratt in a program devoted to works by Tchaikovsky and Brahms – the former’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy and Symphony No. 5 and the latter’s Piano Concerto No. 1. What’s not to like?

Well, actually, it was a fairly long evening, particularly for those who also took in Greg Carroll‘s informative pre-concert lecture; welcoming remarks and an extended intermission (since the “facilities” are meager on both sides of the lobby) plus the substantial program itself pushed the closing bell to nearly 10:30 p.m., not counting the huge ovation that followed.

Let’s extend those sports metaphors to include the thoroughbred that is Pratt, a Triple-Crown winner in his own right, thanks to his mastery of solo performances, appearances with orchestras, and chamber music, not to mention his wizardry in the stick-waving department. His often-breathtaking artistry and his technical prowess were on frequent display during the generally-stormy Brahms. The performance, so ably partnered by Schwarz and this splendid orchestra of seasoned professionals (EMF faculty members), was kaleidoscopic in its wonderful mixture of light and shade. It featured wide-ranging dynamics, the loud portions deftly offset by passages that were exceptionally quiet and introspective – and not only from the solo artist. One reason for this is the excellent hall, in which there can be no bad seats for listening. Another surely is the seating this orchestra uses, the classic arrangement (used by Toscanini, among others) with the violins divided, the cellos and basses behind the firsts, and the violas inside, behind the seconds. The sound of the orchestra in this hall is then further enhanced by having the violins forward of the proscenium arch, allowing their sound to “bloom” into the room with quite astonishing presence. This seating also allows for unusually clear and defined sound from the lower strings, here further abetted by the incisive and precise playing of those sections. In too many halls, pizzicatti from cellos (and never mind basses) get lost in the overall sweep of performances and acoustically muddied beyond aural perception. Not here!

Pratt reaffirmed his position as one of the top pianists of our time, a major interpretive artist and technical wizard. And Schwarz and the orchestra met him step for step in this richly rewarding concerto, too rarely heard hereabouts and thus particularly welcome in this felicitous setting. At the end, the ovation went on for many minutes, with the audience on its collective feet applauding and cheering the soloist, the conductor, and the orchestra.

The concert began with an all-Tchaikovsky first half. That means there was a big infusion of Romantic music on this occasion. The final version of the Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy seemed to take on a life of its own, with its bold introduction – a bit too loud, perhaps, diminishing the impact of the ensuing themes (and thus the evening’s sole misstep, from this listener’s perspective, although there were no evident complaints). The orchestra glistened, demonstrating in no uncertain terms why it is celebrated as one of this state’s finest, even if reconstituted every summer. (How wonderful it would be if we had them here full time, year round!)

Those hallmarks include interpretive excellence at solo and ensemble levels, with some of the most incisive and unified playing one is likely to hear today, with the strings led by Jeffrey Multer and with exceptional strength throughout the orchestra’s ranks.

If the Fifth Symphony wasn’t quite the stem-winder that the overture and concerto were, that may have resulted from its frequent appearance on area programs, but that said I am quite past knocking it, for there are at each presentation of it (or other warhorses) people who are experiencing it for the first time (and perhaps for the last, too). It’s a fact that this reading was among the best, neither over the top nor in any way routine. It could hardly have been the latter, given the experience of this seasoned maestro and the strength of the instrumentalists. Yes, we are fortunate that Schwarz is sharing so much time with us here in NC, as the former NYP trumpet player extraordinaire has long been one of America’s finest conductors – and far more devoted than many of his peers to American music, too, for which he has earned a special and permanent place in the pantheon.

At the end of the first half, the uproar was comparable to the ovation at the concert’s conclusion, reflecting the appreciation and gratitude of the public.

What was not to like?

Forgive all those metaphors, folks. This one was that good!

To see the rest of EMF’s offerings this season, visit our calendar.