It is always a pleasure to return to the bucolic campus of Guilford College and to bask again in the fine acoustics of Dana Auditorium for another superb performance of the Eastern Music Festival. This program featured an eclectic, short program with the EMF Chamber Orchestra led from the first chair by violinist Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg. She has become one of the popular weekly resident artists with both students and audiences over several seasons. For the next three seasons, Nancy Hoffmann has established the Jack Hoffmann Distinguished Guest Artist in memory of her husband. Salerno-Sonnenberg is the initial beneficiary of this gift.

The Symphony No. 3 (1994), for 19 strings, by Philip Glass (b.1937) was commissioned for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and was premiered by them in early 1995 under Dennis Russell Davies’ baton. It is in four movements but the heart of the work is in the third movement, which opened the concert. It is a dark, slow-building chaconne with a ground bass which individual string players add onto as they build up a layering effect. A high singing solo violin melody is taken up before being subsumed beneath a contrapuntal filigrees and trills from a rhythmic texture before ending abruptly.

It began quietly with a repeated figure taken up by four cellos quickly underlined by pizzicatos from two double basses. Four violists took up the phrase shortly and were joined by the second violins as a group. Roughly at this point, the double basses were divided with one bowing the figure set against its plucked companion. Salerno-Sonnenberg entered with a hushed high melody which she varied dynamically over the rest of the piece. Her stand-mate took up the phrase next, followed by each of the second stand players in turnl both third stands joined near the end. The complex layering textures and juxtaposed rhythms came off beautifully. Intonation and phrasing were excellent.

The most memorable part of the String Quartet No, 1 in D, Op. 11, by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93), is the second movement, Andante cantabile. It has been arranged for numerous solo instruments including this concert’s selection, for “solo cello and strings” featuring Julian Schwarz. The famous opening melody, the folk song “Sidel Vanya,” was sung by a peasant painting the composer’s sister’s fence. The second cello melody, accompanied by pizzicatos, is an original theme. Schwarz gave a gorgeous, memorable performance. His full, rich tone was golden, and he applied just the right amount of expressive vibrato. Intonation and bowing, too, were immaculate. Hushed melodic and pizzicato support by his colleagues was delightful.

The early String Symphony No. 10, in B minor (1823), one of a set of twelve by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-49), was given in full. It is in two movements, Adagio and Allegro, played without a break. Salerno-Sonnenberg and her players brought out Mendelssohn’s almost Mozartian clarity as well as the work’s dramatic episodes along with some of the composer’s “elfin or fairy” scoring.

The “meat” of the program came after a rather long intermission. The String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110, by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), is one the more often programmed of the composer’s fifteen. Conductor/violist Rudolf Barshai made a popular transcription for string orchestra. It is in five movements played without break: Largo, Allegro molto, Allegretto, Largo, and Largo. The composer left his musical signature, “a four-note theme built on the notes D, E-flat, C, and B-natural that are represented in German by DSCH,” which serves to unify the work. Among the composer’s works briefly quoted are the First and Fifth Symphonies, the First Cello Concerto, and the twisted (distorted) Yiddish theme from the Second Piano Trio. Salerno-Sonnenberg and her colleagues played with controlled abandon. There were superb violin solos from her and vivid solos from the lead cellist and violist. Weird harmonics and stratospheric high notes, played close to the bridge, came off precisely. The relentless, pounding rhythms swept up the listener. Dynamics ranged from hushed to shattering fffs. Intonation and phrasing were consistently excellent.

Salerno-Sonnenberg said she didn’t want the audience to go home depressed. Shostakovich is rarely jolly. She and the players pulled out all the stops for a polka by Alfred Schnittke (1934-98), who seems to have been in a rare humorous mood. What a swagger she brought to the performance and what extremes of string sounds!

More Eastern Music Festival concerts can be found on our calendar.