The first half of this evening concert at the Eastern Music Festival‘s home base — Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium — was a perfect example of music that bears the stamp of a composer’s sound and personality and which would be hard to mistake for anyone else. Like Van Gogh or Matisse, the subject matter will change but the essence of the unique style always breaks through. A rarely-heard work by Leonard Bernstein and a warhorse (some would mistakenly assert that it is overplayed) by Tchaikovsky were followed by a crowd pleaser in the second half. The Eastern Festival Orchestra was conducted by Jorge Mester, conductor laureate of the Aspen Music Festival in addition to other prestigious appointments and awards too numerous to mention. 

Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento for Orchestra is a set of eight brief movements composed for the opening of the Boston Symphony’s 100th season in 1980. The orchestra employs an enormous percussion ensemble that plays a central part in the decidedly upbeat action. This is a work steeped in the confidence and boisterousness of the American spirit in addition to dance rhythms like sambas, mazurkas, waltzes and even turkey trots! Much of it is reminiscent of the big dance sequences from West Side Story, and the orchestra handled those complex, jagged rhythms like a great jazz big band. The final movement, “In Memoriam; March: The BSO Forever,” is a tribute to both Arthur Fiedler and John Philip Sousa and indeed felt like the finale to a summer evening’s Pops concert.

Tchaikovsky’s lone Violin Concerto is a perfectly polished gem of the great Russian composer and a work which has become a proving ground for any professional violinist — aspiring or arrived. Elmar Oliveira, the violin soloist for this program, owes much of his career to having been the first and only American to win the Gold Medal at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky International Competition. Judging by his performance, it is hard to imagine him playing this monumental work any better at any other time in his life. Oliveira now has the appearance of a Buddha-like figure, with his shaved head and total black dress, and he played as if he has solved all the musical mysteries of life. Technical brilliance is almost a given for artists of this stature, but the mark of a truly great performance is revealing something new to the listener — whether musical or emotional. Oliveira sparkled and showed off when the music called for it and dug well into the composer’s tortured psyche during the contrasting lyrical moments. This was especially apparent in the lovely middle “Canzonetta” movement. Mester and the orchestra were equally superlative although at times they seemed to take a beat or two to catch up with Oliveira whenever the “show off” passages started. Everyone present, including Mester, knew that they truly had experienced one of the great performances of this mighty concerto.

Had Maurice Ravel not become one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, he still would be remembered for his remarkable orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s set of piano pieces called Pictures at an Exhibition. Ravel was no stranger to this transference as the orchestration of his own work, “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” is generally more remembered than the original piano work. Pictures is meant to portray a walk through an art exhibition with the recurring “Promenade” theme depicting the stroll from one painting to the next. This theme majestically starts the work with the solo trumpet and undergoes various musical transformations along the way — those of a certain age might recall the “borrowing” of this grand musical idea by the ’60s rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Like he will later, in his hypnotic “Boléro,” Ravel employs a saxophone in one of the hits of this piece — “The Old Castle.”

The Festival Orchestra was its usual consummate ensemble, but special accolades need to be given to the brass section. It has been said that the Chicago Symphony has/had the greatest brass players. I have never had the opportunity to hear Chicago live but I still would put the EMF’s section against any other as its equal or better. They were like one living organism in their precision and comparable to a great cathedral organ with their power and fullness.

The highlight came with the finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Mester led a controlled and expertly paced climb to the climax that was breathtaking in its power. All sections were superb, but the brass made your seat rumble and brought a real physical dimension to the experience. Just for a kick I put on my old Emerson, Lake & Palmer LP after I got home: compared to EMF, those old rockers didn’t have a clue.