The 53rd version of the Eastern Music Festival, couched on the idyllic campus of Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, closed with an exuberant concert featuring the Festival Orchestra under the inspired direction of Maestro Gerard Schwarz. The program was wide-ranging, from Bach to Brahms and Saint-Saëns to Respighi, but the playing was outstanding at all times. Canadian violinist James Ehnes was the superb soloist in Camille Saint-Saëns’ soulful Concerto No. 3 in B Minor.

By the time Brahms orchestrated his Variations “On a Theme of Haydn” (AKA “Chorale St. Anthony”), he had already written four works with orchestra, including his monumental First Piano Concerto and the imposing Deutsches Requiem. Originally written for two pianos, Brahms started immediately on his orchestration, publishing it as Opus 56a, and it is this version one hears most often. The original Chorale, written for woodwinds, must have intrigued Brahms because of its asymmetric structure; 5-bar phrases are unusual, not unheard of (Wagner used 7-bar phrases in Siegfried Idyll), but sufficiently unusual as to interest other composers. Brahms kept this asymmetric form of 29 measures (repeated) for each of the eight variations but one and used the 5-bar theme as the basis of the Finale, a passacaglia of 16 variations before a grandiose coda which brings the entire 20-minute work to a satisfying conclusion. (Twelve years later, he was to repeat this musical feat in the finale of his last symphony, in E minor, 32 variations on an 8 measure theme, the 32nd being a huge coda!)

Camille Saint-Saëns regarded himself as a “top-notch second-rank composer.” And indeed, throughout his life he was a musical chameleon, changing styles enough to remain enigmatic. The Third Violin Concerto is endearing and charming, a Romantic favorite of violinists everywhere. The first movement, in B minor, is serious and passionate. The second movement is gentle and romantic with one of Saint-Saëns’ most gorgeous melodies, in the unlikely key of B-flat. The finale begins almost as an introspective improvisation for solo violin and develops into a powerful movement with astonishing pyrotechnics for the solo violin.

James Ehnes is an astounding musician and a brilliant violinist. He has a gorgeous tone which he can vary to suit the style of the moment – austere at times, syrupy sweet at others, yet always tasteful. The audience sprang to its feet at the end and he rewarded us with an even more perfect performance of the Andante from the Second Sonata for Solo Violin (in A minor) by J. S. Bach. This was great violin, great music!

After an intermission replete with speeches, some touching, some plagued with microphone problems, we were introduced to Ottorino Respighi’s orchestration of three Bach Chorale Preludes, originally for organ. The first of these, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” used only strings, the lowest in the orchestra dividing to play the fugal sections and the violins all in unison with the chorale. This was lovely, deep and dark – and clear and transparent. The short, swift “Meine Seele erhedtnden Herren” and familiar “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” completed the set.

Respighi’s original Pines of Rome is no doubt his most performed work and is very popular with audiences. The piece is divided into four movements describing not only four locations in the Roman landscape, but four times of day and four moods, and played without pauses between the sections. The first section is multi-layered – children singing, crowds and soldiers milling around, not unlike the Shrovetide Fair of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. An abrupt end to the merry-making reveals the low dark strings evoking the subterranean catacombs, building to an impressive powerful climax with the horns raising their bells! A gentle arpeggio on the piano heralds the nocturnal mood of the lovely hill-top park of the Janiculum, which ends with the trilling of a distant nightingale, unfortunately amplified on this occasion to the intensity of a Carolina Wren! The subliminal thudding of the timpani evokes the Roman legions and centurions marching down the Appian Way. Just when the music builds to its inexorable climax, eight more brass join from the sides of the auditorium to build to an unbelievably loud but balanced explosion of sound, a fitting climax to end an unbelievably superb Festival. Bravo Maestro Schwarz. And Bravo to the retiring Executive Director of the Festival, Stephanie Cordick!