Orchestral Music Review Print



EMF: Two Griegs, a Mahler, and a Full House

July 19, 2008 - Greensboro, NC:


Fireworks were in abundant supply as the Eastern Festival Orchestra offered up a crowd-pleasing night of thrilling music. This is a powerhouse orchestra, delivering up exciting and dynamic music in abundance. And the all but sold out audience enthusiastically received the musical offering.

The world-renowned pianist André Watts was supposed to play Edward Grieg’s Piano Concerto, but because of a sprained wrist, the American pianist William Wolfram was called in at the last moment. Few, if any, were disappointed by the substitution; Wolfram absolutely wowed both audience and orchestral members alike with his solid and sensitive playing.

Grieg’s sole concerto is, arguably, the most famous piece in the genre; especially famous is the four-octave piano fanfare that dramatically emanates from the upper register of the piano before plunging to the bottom of the keyboard.

This is a bravura concerto, with plenty of powerful chords and soaring climaxes, and Wolfram played these passages with authority and aplomb. But what was even more impressive than the pianist’s virtuosity was his lyric playing. Here sensitivity and color ruled supreme. Wolfram gorgeously shaped phrases and breathed life into them and explored wonderful colors from the Steinway upon which he played.

Several memorable moments are allotted to the orchestra as well, often doubling the piano tune — flute, bassoon, clarinet — all beautifully played. EMF’s Music Director Gerard Schwarz was on the podium, deftly making sure orchestral forces and soloist spoke the same language.

Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 1 in D Major is scored for a huge array of instruments including four flutes, four clarinets, three bassoons, seven (!) horns, five trumpets, four trombones, and bass tuba. Obviously climaxes tend to be overwhelming. However Mahler also uses this enormous collection of instruments in solo and in novel combinations to create a multi-hued texture.

The four-movement, 50-minute work provided a tour-de-force for the EFO, which loves to sink its teeth into the arch-romantic repertoire, milking the climactic moments for all they are worth. And perhaps it is in compositions such as the Mahler that Maestro Schwarz especially shines. Now dancing, now cajoling, now pleading, the conductor elicits a seemingly unlimited number of shades of color and dynamics from the orchestral palette.

True, there were some unexpected peccadilloes from the orchestra — the opening out-of-tune entrance of the winds, or the smeared end of a trumpet line near the beginning, but these did not detract from the big picture — the overall direction and force of the music.

Mahler subtitled the work, “Titan,” after a literary work by Jean Paul. The composer had initially provided a bit of a program about the piece — the first movement “depicts Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter,” and one does not need be a connoisseur to hear the cuckoo and hunting horns. Mahler the symphonist is also Mahler the songwriter, and this is certainly true in this work, as the main tune of the first movement turns out to be a song from his “Songs of a Wayfarer.”

The second movement is an exuberant dance (an Austrian Ländler), which the EFO enjoyed cavorting. The third movement has the famous double bass solo (unerringly played by Leonid Finkelshteyn) that puts “Frere Jacques” in a minor mode. 

The finale begins with what must be one of the most cataclysmic passages in the symphonic literature. However, after this musical implosion, Mahler rebuilds a world, incorporating several tunes from earlier in the symphony until a glorious victory is achieved, and eight brass players rise from the rear of the orchestra to intone this magnificent hymn, which provides a catharsis to everything that has gone on before.  The audience was ecstatic in its appreciation of the orchestra and conductor.

The evening opened with Grieg’s own orchestrated version of four of his piano compositions (entitled Lyric Pieces) in the “Lyric Suite.” The opening “Shepherd Boy” explores a desolate loneliness, with exquisite playing, especially from the strings. The second movement is a solemn rustic march, the third a lyric Nocturne, and the finale a rousing “March of the Dwarfs.”  Much of the music incorporates folk tunes and rhythms that show Grieg’s love of his native Norway.