The Eastern Music Festival‘s 50th season officially took flight Saturday night with Susan Graham, one of the world’s foremost stars of opera and recital, performing works designed to please the sold-out crowd in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus. EMF Music Director Gerard Schwarz was at the helm, driving the Eastern Festival Orchestra (the faculty ensemble) to play at its best.

The evening opened with a work commissioned by EMF to celebrate its half century of existence. Elegy by the American composer Pierre Jalbert (b.1967) is a work taken from his first String Quartet arranged for the string section of the EFO. The scant five-minute work begins with a soft, chordal soundscape followed by an eerily high cello solo (exquisitely played by first-chair Neal Cary) accompanied by the other strings. The climax occurs in the third section, when the strings become increasingly intense. The audience was pleased with the work, and Jalbert, who was in attendance, graciously accepted the applause.

Handel’s famous aria “Ombra mai fu,” from Xerxes, provided Graham the opportunity to spin out long, lyric lines. Her voice is absolutely gorgeous — full of color, butterscotch. Mozart’s “Parto, ma tu bene mio,” from La Clemenza di Tito,showed a more dramatic side of the mezzo-soprano.

Bizet’s orchestral Suite No. 1 from Carmen provided kind of a warm-up for what was to come. The entire five-movement piece is chock-full of famous tunes. Although Bizet was French, he most convincingly catches the flavors of Spain, with sinewy melodies and shaking tambourines. Schwarz goaded the ensemble to play with all the gusto and color at its disposal. 

Graham, who is especially known for her singing of French music, returned to sing two of the most famous pieces in the literature: the “Habañera” and the “Séguidille” from Carmen. Whoever in the audience was not mesmerized by her first appearance in the evening was completely taken in by her sexy, saucy presentation of these two arias by the “bad girl” of opera. Maestro Schwarz was with Graham every step of the way, even with some unexpected liberties in tempo and rhythm.

Graham asked for audience participation in her singing of “Vilja Lied,” from The Merry Widow by Lehár. But she made it perfectly clear when she was supposed to sing solo and when the crowd was to sing the chorus. Very cute.

An encore was in store: Gershwin’s Summertime.  Graham milked the music for all it was worth: sliding all over the place, interpolating lots of notes, making the piece as sultry as possible. More standing ovations.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D, Op.73 (written in 1877), was an immediate success when it was first performed, and often, the third movement had to be repeated. Of the four symphonies written by Brahms, this surely has the most sunny disposition.

The opening movement, a relaxed Allegro, is glorious and uplifting; intonation issues in the winds and brass were somewhat better in the repeat of the exposition — nothing really detracted from the overall mood of serenity. The Adagio second movement is much more intense and contains some of the most dramatic music penned by Brahms; none of this was lost on Schwarz and the EFO, whose members caught the atmosphere perfectly. The third movement “minuet” is full of grace, and it put the string section on display with cleanly played scurrying lines. The Finale is a full-blown exposé of orchestral color and power. And the EFO delivered the goods like gangbusters.

The EMF orchestra sounded great in Dana — it is always wonderful to hear such a vibrant ensemble in such a pleasing acoustical setting. The music bar has been set at a very high level in this first concert — we can look forward to four more weeks of continuing excellence.

The EMF continues through July 30. For details, see our calendar or the presenter’s website.