The Eastern Music Festival rolled along with a performance by their Young Artists Orchestra in Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium. The orchestra, under the direction of José-Luis Novo and featuring cellist Julian Schwarz, presented Lowell Liebermann‘s Concerto for Cello, Op. 132 and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (“Organ Symphony”) in C minor, Op. 78.

Liebermann is admittedly unfamiliar to me, but Schwarz and the orchestra gave me an excellent first impression of the American composer’s work. The first movement, a slow recitative for cello, conveyed a sense of mystery and wonder, shrouded by a mist just dense enough to be mostly impenetrable. This movement was not only technically difficult, with just about everyone having their own fast arpeggios to execute, but it also presented numerous expressive difficulties, requiring the performers to constantly change characters unexpectedly. They were able to portray these changes without any awkwardness at all, and it certainly helped that Schwarz had an infinite array of colors at his disposal to lead the charge through both the slow, lamenting sections and the fast, forceful ones.

This was followed by the heartbreakingly beautiful second movement with its longing, lyrical melodies and lush textures that, although expansive, were used in a way that was introspective, looking inward instead of outward. From there, Schwarz and the orchestra played the short, fast third movement with its abrupt ending that gloriously upset the tranquility of the first two movements. Although this piece was not directly programmatic, I found myself imagining an overarching storyline throughout its entirety, all because of how dramatic, depictive, and convincing this performance was. In the first movement, I saw our lone hero navigating a foreign land, unearthing both its beautiful and deadly elements. In the second movement, the hero sets sail in a vast ocean where the entire world is at their disposal, yet they are still searching for something they do not quite understand. And in the final movement, the hero reaches an abrupt end – whether it was death or something else, I am not quite sure. There is a lot to be said for a performance that makes someone fall in love with a new piece upon their first listening, and that is exactly what Schwarz and the EMF’s Young Artists Orchestra did for me with Liebermann’s cello concerto.

After intermission came Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, typically known as the “Organ Symphony.” The listing looked unique on the program with its “Part I” and “Part II” instead of the usual movement numbers, but the work is actually a somewhat typical symphony within those two parts. It really seemed like Saint-Saëns’ homage to the music and composers that came before him in the classical lineage, with the organ, the Baroque sequences, and the old hymnlike harmonic progressions that became more and more prominent as the piece progressed. But, the piece means nothing without an orchestra to add the Romantic “flair” that is required, and that flair is exactly what this orchestra provided. They never let me forget the impending sense of doom that Saint-Saëns made such an important element. Although the symphony is in C minor, a great deal of the piece is major and quite triumphant at times. The modified “Dies Irae” theme always brought a cloud back over the music, though, as if the “main character” is trying to distract themself from the darkness at the back of their mind. It truly is a mammoth piece with tons of tiny moving parts, but the Young Artists of the Eastern Music Festival embraced the challenges presented by Saint-Saëns and brought them together masterfully. Their execution of both the Liebermann concerto and the Saint-Saëns symphony made this one of my favorite performances of the year, and I cannot wait to hear more from the EMF.

The Eastern Music Festival and its various ensembles will have performances through next week, concluding on July 30th.