Two conductors, two orchestras, 200 students graced the stage of Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College in the exciting first orchestra concert of the 2009 season. Almost all the students are teenagers, a few as young as 14, with a handful of 20-somethings. They are divided into two orchestras, the Eastern and the Guilford Symphony Orchestras.

The concert opened with the Eastern Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the Artistic Director of the Eastern Music Festival, Gerard Schwarz.

Hector Berlioz was an innovator, the first on the block to write for the newly invented saxophone, one of the first to use valve* and piston brass instruments in his scores, and the first to prescribe large-size bass clef (low pitch) sections – in fact, he often wrote the desired number of musicians in the margins of his scores. Perhaps best known for his hallucinatory Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz also wrote three operas, Les Troyens, Béatrice et Bénédict, and Benvenuto Celllini, from which he excerpted parts to create the stand-alone concert overture, “Carnaval Romain.”

Biting into the furious-paced opening passages, the strings were daring, the rapid tonguing of the winds brilliant. A gorgeous English horn solo ushered in a more contemplative moment before we were swept up into the revelry of a fast and furious saltarella.

Maestro Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony have recently recorded a disk of works by Arthur Foote (1853-1937), an American composer who lived from 1853 to1937 in New England. Maestro Schwarz led his gifted young orchestra in a touching performance of Foote’s fifteen minute “Francesca da Rimini,” Op. 24. The plot is that of an arranged proxy marriage in which a brother stands in for the deformed groom. The bride, of course, falls in love with the proxy and they have an adulterous affair, which ends when the groom murders them both. The story is recounted in Canto V of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and has been the inspiration for countless plays, operas, paintings, sculpture and tone poems. Whereas Tchaikovsky’s tone poem of the same name chose to dwell on the twisted and lugubrious convolutions of the plot, including the descent into Hades, Foote emphasized the passionate love the couple shared.

This moving romantic work was a revelation as the young musicians poured their hearts into the performance. Noteworthy was the passionate oboe solo near the beginning of the piece by an unnamed young lady.

During intermission, the orchestras traded places and the gifted young Spanish maestro, Jose-Luis Novo, took over the podium. Now in his 10th year as resident conductor at EMF, he led the Guilford Symphony Orchestra through a rhythmically taut version of Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, a musical souvenir of a visit to a dance hall in Mexico City in the early 1930s. Cross-rhythms and jazz are incorporated into traditional Mexican folk tunes in original and innovative ways. Kudos to the also unnamed young Asian girl who raucously played her heart out on the high pitched Eb clarinet.

The concert closed with the marvelous Four Dances, Op. 8a, from Estancia by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-83). Although a few slip-ups occurred in the woodwinds in softer passages, this was a powerful performance and a fitting finale to a great opening concert. The brass and percussion were thunderously precise in their rhythmic punctuation of the Malambos, a gaucho dance which Ginastera uses as the rhythmic basis of the first and last movements. The smallish audience made up in applause what it lacked in number.

*Valves and pistons allow the brass instruments to play chromatically. Whereas previously, only notes in the harmonic series were available – a Bb trumpet without pistons (a “natural” horn) could only play Bb, Bb, F, Bb, D, F, Ab, Bb, C, D, E, F – 12 notes – a Bb trumpet with pistons can play some 32 notes, giving the composer a much greater choice of pitches, harmonies, modulations and keys.