There are some 200 student musicians attending the Eastern Music Festival, held annually on the bucolic Guilford College campus, which allows the fielding of two large Young Artists Orchestras. The festival abandoned giving different names to the orchestras several years ago. Resident conductor José-Luis Novo led the opening and closing works on this concert, given in Dana Auditorium, for performances of a Bright Sheng excerpt, a sterling Mozart concerto, and rarely-heard Prokofiev symphony.
Bright Sheng (b.1955) is one of the most significant of the younger generation of composers. His musical education began at age five with piano studies, but his higher musical education was severely interrupted by the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao. Afterward, he was one of the first students accepted by the Shanghai Conservatory, and he completed his studies in New York, first at Queens College of the City University of New York, followed by Columbia University. In an interview with Bob Edwards on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, the composer described himself as "a totally mixed-up hybrid... who can appreciate both ... Western and Eastern music." Contrasting the two approaches to music, Sheng explained that Chinese "music is essentially pure melody, without harmonic underpinnings." Western music can have multiple "melodic lines running along at the same time, creating polyphony and harmony."
Novo programmed Sheng's "The Three Gorges of the Long River," from China Dreams, which was composed when the composer was feeling very homesick. It is the last part of a suite of four movements composed 1992-95 for Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. "Long River" refers to the great Yangtze River, as powerful in Chinese myth as the Mississippi River is to Americans or the Amazon River is to South Americans. According to the composer, the idea for this work came to him in a dream, and "the first five minutes of the movement are more or less what I heard in the dream." Novo held the performance together superbly, skillfully balancing sections, applying a very wide dynamic range, and conjuring subtle instrumental colors from his attentive players. The opening began with a winning, broad, flowing melody, richly played by the strings. The woodwinds suggested oriental vistas. Various episodes featured, in turn, a wide variety of plucked strings, soaring horns, braying brass, and insistent, complex percussion rhythms. After a roaring climax, the gentle string music returned. Section ensemble was outstanding.
Most of the large orchestra left the stage for the next work, leaving four first violins, four second violins, three violas, two cellos, one double bass, two oboes, and two horns to partner Jeffrey Multer in the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K.219 ("Turkish"), by Mozart. Playing Mozart is like making a soufflé: the slightest clinker will take the air out of the performance. Multer played the solo superbly with a glowing tone, flawless intonation, quicksilver articulation, and a marvelous sense of classical style — while also directing the orchestra. The student string section players played exactly together as one while the woodwinds and brass were strongly characterized. There was a beautiful, long-held note played by the horn near the end of the first movement. Multer's cadenzas were amusing and imaginative, including bits from the Queen of the Night's music in the first movement and an allusion to the famous "Rondo alla Turca" in the last movement.
Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, is a real rare bird both in the concert hall and on recordings. Because of his Sixth Symphony, the composer was joined with Khachaturian and Shostakovich as the focus of Stalin's infamous 1948 crackdown on "formalist composers." By the time Prokofiev again started to compose a symphony five years later, he was in failing health. The festival program notes by Steven Ledbetter state the composer intended to write "a children's symphony." Harlow Robinson, in his biography Sergei Prokofiev, asserts the composer "retreated to an oddly flat and placid style in the Seventh. Its simple form, square rhythms, and unusually (sic) this scoring — only rarely does the entire orchestra play — were" chosen to be accessible to the target audience children. More than once, snippets of the score brought to mind similar music from the "Classical Symphony," the Romeo and Juliet ballet, and "Peter and the Wolf." While certainly not as profound a score as the Fifth Symphony or the neglected Sixth, the Seventh has an abundance of rich melodies, dance rhythms, etc. The expansive first and second themes dominate the strings and could serve as a movie sound track. Before the first theme returns to conclude the opening movement, there is a charming episode dominated by the tinkling of a glockenspiel coupled with an oboe. The waltz that dominates the second movement recalls Prokofiev's great ballets or the ball in his opera War and Peace. The slow movement has a memorable oriental-sounding theme played alternately by oboe and English horn. A colorful and lively rondo concludes the symphony. Novo's young musicians played with great assurance. String tone was full and rich while the dynamics were carefully gauged. The first violin section brought out all the warmth of the score as they played the seamless melody of the first theme of the opening movement. Percussion, brass, and woodwinds were strongly characterized throughout the work. The cellos conjured up a particularly full, rich sound in the third movement.