Five outstanding young instrumentalists and nine talented conductors presented themselves in front of their peers as the winners of the Eastern Music Festival‘s annual Concerto Competition, open to all students enrolled in the five-week festival on the campus of Guilford College. Both student orchestras with their respective conductors, José-Luis Novo and Grant Cooper, shared the stage on Thursday night, July 29 for the competition winners; the young conductors were privileged to conduct on July 25 the Festival Orchestra, composed of fully professional orchestra musicians serving also as EMF faculty members.

Concerto Competition: Five winners were chosen by the jury to play with the orchestra, a flutist, a bassoonist, a violinist and two pianists. There was not enough rehearsal time to prepare all five soloists for the concert on Thursday, July 29, so one soloist was selected to play the previous week, on July 24, at the concert of the Festival Orchestra, directed by Maestro Gerald Schwarz: flutist Anastasia Samsel, 19, from Guilford, CT.

Gifted with a beautiful tone and warm expressive vibrato, she was a perfect match for the Concertino for Flute and Orchestra by Parisian composer, Cécile Chaminade, who composed this work as a commission from the Conservatoire National de France in 1902. The piece is one of the most popular pieces in the entire flute repertory, for good reason – it is expressive, playful some times and thoughtful others, all aspects Samsel excelled in. I would only suggest that she disregard the composer’s dynamic indication at the opening of the work (mf) and play frankly louder unless the orchestra is very attentive to the soloist. Beginnings are so important! Well done, young lady – we hope to hear more from you.

It is said that Igor Stravinsky once exclaimed that Vivaldi tried 500 times to write a concerto, but failed each time, writing essentially the same concerto 500 times. Generalizations of this kind, however witty, are rarely true – but there is a tendency to find long runs of sixteenth notes a bit tedious – like stringing beads, only really noticeable if there is a hiccough, a stumble or a break in the string! Fortunately, none of these occurred in the first concerto of the Concerto Evening.

Yes, it was by Vivaldi, one of 39 concertos he wrote for the bassoon, the Bassoon Concerto in C, RV 477, played by the talented 19-year-old Adrian Wittmer from Buffalo, NY. Whereas the other concerto players were limited by time to one movement of their concertos, Wittmer, in the same time period was fortunate enough to play three movements, showing many varied facets of his instrument because each movement embraces a different emotional aspect of music – exuberance, melancholy, thoughtfulness, anger, etc. In fact, the second movement, with only the solo bassoon, plus a bass line played on the cello and a keyboard to fill in the harmonies, revealed Wittmer’s beautiful tone and sweet vibrato. The third movement served to reaffirm the technical prowess of composer and soloist alike.

Prokofiev wrote two violin concertos, both popular in the violin repertory. Cameron Jeppson, 21, from Salt Lake City, UT played the first movement of the Second Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 63. Despite the introverted nature of this particular piece of Prokofiev, Jeppson played it with great passion and excellent technique.

Anthony Wu exudes personality – in the balcony or on the stage, this 17-year-old from Missouri has been bringing a smile to every one’s face in the concert hall. What a pleasure it was to discover the brilliant pianistic ability and musicality backing his ebullient personality. The Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 63 takes off like a rocket, from the “git-go.” It is an exuberant blast-off to outer space with a cheerful major key second theme which barely allows us to catch our breath. Needless to say, he brought down the house. This young man has an infectious musical personality which should take him far. The choice of piece for the concerto competition was smart, because it seems to align well with the exterior aspects of his personality. I would personally love to hear him interpret an inwardly-turned composition of Beethoven, Schumann or Brahms – I believe there is a world of imagination in this artist.

The final soloist to appear was Bonhwi Kim, 19, from Seoul, South Korea. Were it not for the sensation created in the hall by the previous pianist, Kim would have brought down the house – especially playing such a barnburner as the Grieg Concerto. He was accurate and powerful, thoughtful and emotional, and he paced himself well. My only misgiving was a lack of power at the end of the cadenza where one should almost “see” the thunder played in the left hand just before the orchestra’s re-entry.

Conducting Scholars: Nine young conductors presented themselves in front of the elite ensemble of musicians which comprises the Eastern Festival Orchestra. Seven of the conductors conducted overtures and two directed short works which can stand alone in the repertory. Commentary from an outsider, even one such as yours truly, who has practiced and taught the art and science of conducting for almost half a century, can only be a snap-shot of a moment in time, not the evaluation of the potential of a personality or of a musical nature. Additionally, a meteoric or international career is largely independent of aspects of musical profundity. Some of the conducting scholars showed absolute knowledge of the score – often these same conductors lacked spontaneity or “over-conducted.” In other words, the detail of a gesture had been decided ahead of time, not in response to a musical event.

The conductor of Charles Ives/William Schuman’s Variations on “America,” Martin Vaillancourt, seemed very natural, un-choreographed and responsive to the musicians, all while maintaining control over the direction the piece was progressing. I found the same for Micah Gleason, who conducted Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, although I still can’t figure out why the third half note at the very beginning should be any longer than its preceding siblings…both times?

The conductor with the most difficult work on the program, Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Sophie Sze-ki Mok, also appeared to be the most supple and prepared for the spontaneous happening of the moment. The Debussy is difficult because of the constant changing of tempos and meters. It is one of those pieces wherein it is more difficult to count the rests than to play the parts.

All the conductors were impressive. I would only hope that when they begin to carve their niche, be it in a school orchestra or with the National Philharmonic, that you please bring the musicians up to your level rather than lower yourself to their level. In the first case, you will cause continuous improvement; in the second case, you will lose your technique!

Bravo, tutte e tutti!