The Eastern Music Festival is most certainly one of the gems of the cultural landscape in North Carolina, and moves into its 52nd season with admirable continuity, being able to boast of Gerard Schwarz as Music Director, and Associate Conductor José-Luis Novo as director of the Young Artists Orchestra.

Novo prepared an ambitious program for July 4 in Dana Auditorium, with nothing of the usual trappings of the holiday; no American music, and nothing military in tone. Indeed, the opening work on the program, one rarely heard, the Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20, by Benjamin Britten (celebrating his centennial this year – hard to fathom that he was younger than Elliott Carter!), was quite the opposite. The work has an interesting and unusual history, having been commissioned in 1940 by the Japanese government which wanted a festival work commemorating the imperial dynasty. What Britten produced is a piece clearly reflecting the terrible war going on at the time, opening with ominous beats from the timpani. Each of the three movements bears a Latin title taken from the Mass for the Dead – Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, and Requiem Aeternam. The Lacrymosa is full of lamenting off-beat accents, leading to a conflict between major and minor mode at its climax; the Dies Irae begins with a shrill flutter-tongued flute, though the affect is more frantic than menacing. The final movement begins with major-mode sounds from woodwinds and brass that are more placid, but far from restful. All in all, the work is certainly far from what the commissioners might have had in mind, and still far enough from the mainstream to appear only rarely on concert programs. The students of the orchestra (ranging in age from 14 to 22) played admirably, and the only criticism one might voice is that the prominent saxophone solos in the first two movements were too loud for their context in the woodwind section of the orchestra.

More familiar to listeners, and with much for the orchestra to dig its teeth into, was Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40, of Richard Strauss, which is the last of the extraordinary run of tone poems by the composer to really find a firm place in the repertoire (the only later such works are the Domestic Symphony, from 1904, and the Alpine Symphony, from 1915. Strauss gives us an idealized picture of his life as a composer (he is the Hero of the Heroic Life), with a soaring theme for the strings to open the work. His pedantic musical critics (academics, given that their criticisms are in fugato form) appear, in striking contrast, as individual woodwind voices, evidently with nitpicking commentary to make.

Strauss had married a soprano, Pauline de Ahna, five years earlier, and the next section of the poem is an amazing depiction of her personality, expressed through virtuoso writing – complex, demanding, expressive – for the solo violin, set against the lower voices of the orchestra, so that the work becomes almost a concerto. Concertmaster Nathan Lowry (19, from Antioch, TN) turned in a performance at the highest possible level of this difficult music, beautifully phrased, with lovely tone and absolutely refined intonation. This young man will certainly have a career wherever he desires with this kind of skill. He received accolades both from his fellow musicians and the listening audience when the work concluded. The work moves on from the composer’s love life to his struggles, his achievements, and finally to his apotheosis and death (the concertmaster plays his final notes, and his entry into eternity is accompanied by transcendent chords from the winds). Novo did a fine job in leading his troops through this complex and demanding work (Strauss almost always has a polyphonic web in which the leading melody is accompanied by important countermelodies at other levels of the orchestra, and each resolution must be prepared and carried through). I could imagine somewhat more detail in the dynamic rise and fall of each line, so that, for example, the opening might breathe more expressively, but really, it was an amazingly realized performance for a youth orchestra. Bravo to Novo, the orchestra, and the Festival, for making this experience possible!