Friday night’s opening gala performance of the Eastern Music Festival 2013 season featured superstar violinist Joshua Bell in a stunning, creatively planned program. Music Director Gerard Schwarz, after appearing onstage prior to the performance for the unveiling of a beautiful bronze sculpture of Maestro Schwarz, commissioned in his honor, opened the program with his own work, The Human Spirit, featuring the Northwest Boychoir and Children’s Festival Chorus. Set to words of Aaron Copland — “So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning, Schwarz composed the piece in 2009 for boys’ chorus with string quartet, horn, and vibraphone, revising it in 2010 to include larger choral forces and full orchestra. Perhaps due to space limitations, the boys stood on either side of Maestro Schwarz, directly in front of — and blocking — the orchestra. These unusual logistics turned out to be advantageous for the audience in that we could clearly see the facial expressions of these earnest young men and marvel all the more at their purely rounded voices, gently shaping Schwarz’s lyrical — almost liturgical-sounding — phrases, exemplifying all that is best about well-trained boys’ choirs.

Next on the agenda was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 64, certainly among the best known works in the literature. When interpreted by a violinist like Joshua Bell, one can expect the result to be a spectacular ride. At EMF, it was that and more. One senses Mendelssohn would have been immensely pleased. Mr. Bell bounded onstage in his trademark black outfit, exuding the boyish vitality he is known for. From the very first note to the last, his playing was by turns gorgeous, soulful, playful, and effortless, and Maestro Schwarz and the EMF orchestra matched his every move. The man can make his instrument sing with such clarity and such an other-worldly grace, one can’t help but believe the violin becomes a living organism in his hands. Descriptors like stunning, intense, dazzling, profoundly nuanced — choose your favorite superlative — merely scratch the surface of what it is like to hear Mr. Bell play. There is a reason he has attained rock star status in this brutally competitive field, and there is a reason the audience leapt to its feet as soon as the final notes sounded, not allowing Mr. Bell to leave without an encore. His playing of the “Yankee Doodle” Variations, which he adapted for solo violin from a piece written by Vieuxtemps, couldn’t have been more delightful or more appropriate, given the upcoming 4th of July holiday. These variations are tricky enough to count as a magic act. They are so virtuosic and yet so humorous, Mr. Bell had the audience literally hanging on every note.

The second half of the program featured music by two giants of German orchestral music: Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner. Strauss’ Sextet from his one-act opera Capriccio, which premiered in Munich in 1942, was originally scored as a sextet for 2 violins, 2 violas, & 2 celli, and serves as the opera’s introduction as well as part of its staging, played for a beautiful Countess in her salon. The piece seems to work just as well — perhaps even better — when played by a full string orchestra. It is a stunningly gorgeous, achingly beautiful piece of music, filled with long legato lines and lilting melodies exuding a sense of intimacy that belies the forces used to play it. Certainly in the hands of great players led by a great conductor, as here, we were treated to something that came across as simply sublime.

Even if the evening’s programming had nothing officially to do with the upcoming Independence Day holiday, one could not help but be blown away by the musical fireworks which are so much on display in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Excerpts from this great opera, part of Wagner’s vast four-evening Ring cycle, gave listeners the opportunity to hear, in what ironically seemed like an all too brief span of time, the “best of” Götterdämmerung. Wagner’s spectacular score is breathtaking as it takes listeners from one peak to another and then another still, using every dramatic element available and clearly showing Wagner’s genius in orchestral writing. The three harps onstage are perhaps symbolic of the extravagance of the score and its many attendant moving parts. Just when one thought the orchestra couldn’t get any louder without shattering windows or eardrums, it managed to do so, merely by a well-timed flick of Maestro Schwarz’s wrist. Schwarz’s masterful conducting of this powerful score drew every bit of energy, heart, and will out of the players, resulting in some of the finest orchestral playing this reviewer has ever heard. In a word, masterful!