Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and that does not apply only to personal relationships. After not playing in, nor attending, an orchestral concert for more than three months, hearing the Eastern Music Festival’s dazzling concert at their Dana Auditorium home at Guilford College served as a spiritual homecoming. This was your traditional overture-concerto-intermission-symphony program, but there was nothing ordinary about the performances.

Like a 99-yard kickoff return at the start of a football game, there is perhaps no better rousing jump-out-of-your-seat overture (metaphorically speaking – please, this is classical music) than Mikhail Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, an opera that fell as flat as matzoh. Leading the Eastern Festival Orchestra, the top tier orchestra of the EMF, was Jahja Ling, an energetic fireplug who has had a long association with the Cleveland Orchestra. Although this band is more than capable of ratcheting up the metronome, Ling wisely reined in the temptation to travel at Autobahn speeds with the result being a lively rendition that also brought out the lyrical second theme played by the excellent 8-person cello section.

What came next was one of those rare you-had-to-be-there moments as well as a challenge for any writer to convey the fierce energy, emotional intensity and outrageous musicianship of soloist and orchestra. The work was Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 77 (revised as Op. 99) and the violin soloist was Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. This was my first opportunity to see this highly acclaimed virtuoso, and it is the seeing and experiencing the energy she puts out with her performance that is nearly as impressive as her remarkable playing. This is a massive and sprawling composition and like many of Shostakovich’s works, this runs the emotional gamut from inconsolable despair to giddy, goofy Fellini-esque euphoria. The long opening Nocturne is spacious, reserved and meditative and Sonnenberg spins out these long lines with heartfelt intensity. It is hard to imagine that the rhythmically raucous and aggressive scherzo that follows comes from the same brain. There is a stunningly beautiful passacaglia as the third movement which also contains the only cadenza of the concerto, a brilliant five minute solo that is a microcosm of the entire work for what at times sounds like a string trio instead of a solo violinist. You cannot always say this about even expertly played performances, but this one was an example of why live classical music is so essential. Sonnenberg was almost animal-like in her unbridled and footloose habitation of this magnificent work. There were six curtain calls but no encore was to come as you could see the complete exhaustion in her eyes. As the old sports cliché goes, she left it all out on the field.   

Where the Shostakovich is emotionally all over the map, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 can pretty much be summed up as sunny and life-affirming. Mr. Ling conducted this work without a score and since most of our eyes were glued to Sonnenberg during the Shostakovich, this was where we could now fully see the greatness of this conductor.

The aforementioned cello section starts off this symphony with a lovely, wistful theme that eventually morphs into a bright, assertive statement. Dvořák is so full of melodies and motives that he has the luxury of casting them off quickly, leaving us to want him to linger longer. Like an expressive dancer, Ling sculpted the air to convey his vision of the music, and the orchestra responded in kind. He also found soft, hidden parts of the score that may not be apparent at first and helped point your ear to a charming inner voice or subtle syncopation. In short, he did what a conductor should do – deliver all of the music in ways you may not have ever heard before. Ling did that for me. Dvořák’s Eighth is one of my favorite symphonies, and one I thought I knew very well.