Every year, in the closing days of the Eastern Music Festival, on the campus of Guilford College, audiences look forward to the performances of the winners of the concerto competition held among the students, virtuosi aged from 14 to 20, from all over the world. They are accompanied by two orchestras of their peers. In the first concert this year's winners were accompanied by the "Eastern Symphony Orchestra," attentively directed by faculty conductor, José-Luis Novo. After intermission, the other student orchestra, the "Guilford Symphony Orchestra," took its place under impressive guest conductor Chelsea Tipton II to play "An American in Paris," by Gershwin. The roles will be reversed in the second concert.
Flutist Marley Eder (17, from Santa Clarita, CA) started the concert with the "Ballade" of Frank Martin, the 20th-century Swiss composer we should be hearing more often. Born in Geneva in 1890, Martin was influenced by the techniques of the 12-tone system, yet always managed to keep his listeners within a tonal framework. The "Ballade" is popular among flutists, and for good reason — from its undulating beginning to the impulsive rhythmic accents and pizzicato of the strings and piano which taunt the soaring lines of the flute in its highest register, to the tremolo in the violas which heralds the impending conclusion, with one last run and a musical exclamation point, the piece is a wonderful vehicle for the skills of the soloist. Eder was eloquent, with a warm tone, excellent intonation, and brilliant technique. The piece, for a reduced string section, was well rehearsed and tight under Maestro Novo.
The orchestra swelled for the ever-popular Cello Concerto by Antonín Dvorák (1st mvt.). The soloist was cellist Julian Schwarz (17, from Seattle, WA). He sat calmly through the long orchestral exposition, looking like a cherubic curly-haired version of his father, EMF Music Director, Gerard Schwarz, who sat attentively in the balcony through the entire concert. When finally the solo cello enters with its declamatory first theme, the audience held its collective breath in anticipation. Schwarz, already a master musician with awards and honors to back him, was mesmerizing, except when the orchestral winds covered some of the delicate arpeggiated filigree passage work. His second theme was to die for — warm and romantic. The audience gave the young cellist a standing ovation.
But the third soloist of the evening, pianist Chien-Lin Lu (20, from San Gabriel, CA), really brought down the house with his performance of Franz Liszt's Concerto in E-flat (2nd mvt. to end), sometimes dubbed the "Triangle Concerto," because of the frequent triangle solos in the last movement.
American audiences love the piano, and indeed, given the volume of the orchestra, only the piano soloists have successfully balanced the orchestra in the louder moments of these student orchestra concerts. Lu started his performance with an incredibly soft and tender improvisatory dream-like theme, which forms the basis for that movement and for the finale, which is typical of Liszt's compositional technique wherein themes evolve and morph, changing character as tempos and harmonies advance. And as the music became a polonaise, then a march, Lu dropped his dreaminess and flashed with a fire and passion belying his slight frame. A lively and difficult viola solo was imbedded anonymously into the ever-growing excitement of the finale.
After intermission, Chelsea Tipton II led a well-balanced performance of Gershwin's "An American in Paris" with the GSO. With a firm command and a mostly symmetric conducting technique, the Maestro brought out the tempo fluctuations and the sometimes raucous, sometimes dreamy mood shifts that Gershwin incorporates into the score. I was especially impressed how Tipton and the musicians paced the tempo and dynamics at the end of the tone poem, changing the mood from the usual "satisfying conclusion" to "a rousing finale." Again, the audience was on its feet!