The final concert for student orchestras of the Eastern Music Festival usually emphasizes virtuosity and gives family and friends a chance to gauge the artistic growth of the students. Alleged past confusion led the festival to identify both student orchestras simply as "Festival Orchestra" this year.
The distribution of talent and degree of experience is pretty equal between both ensembles, and both conducting faculty members work with both groups of players. In past seasons, the orchestra led by José-Luis Novo, now in his seventh season with the festival, was called the Eastern Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra of Scott Sandmeier, now in his eighth season, was known as the Guilford Symphony Orchestra. I noticed that the students who announced concert-night sponsors and asked that electronic devices to be turned off always linked themselves to the old orchestra names. Those at the July 30 matinee audience in Dana Auditorium got their money's worth.
Novo led his musicians in an alert and vital performance of the Suite, Op. 33bis, from Prokofiev's opera The Love for Three Oranges. I counted five distinct selections. The opening offered a good, full string sound, crisp percussion, and deliciously tart brass – especially the strongly characterized trumpets. The woodwinds were outstanding throughout all the selections. The light-textured and spiky scherzo has some pungent low-lying parts that were well played by the bassoons and contrabassoon. The delicate slow movement featured an ethereal solo from the concertmistress and a long, yearning melody spun out by the principal violist. Swirling violins, blazing brass, and insistent rhythms of the next piece led to the trumpets and rest of the orchestra taking up the well-known march theme once used for the TV series The FBI in Peace and War.
Ravel's fantastic and macabre vision of Old Vienna, "La Valse," was beautifully brought to life under Novo's vigilant attention to balance and detail. Opening ideally with hushed pulsing from the double basses, the motif was lugubriously stated by deep-rumbling bassoons and the contrabassoon. Out of a carefully crafted orchestral fog, the waltz rhythm became increasingly insistent. The violins were in lock step and produced a wonderful sheen. There were many fine solos, including those by the concertmistress, the principal cellist, the flute, rapidly fluttering, the oboe, the English horn and, not least, the harpist's many arpeggios.
The English repertory has been rather neglected over the past several seasons, so Scott Sandmeier's selection of two under-programmed works was most welcome. In Elgar's "Cockaigne" Overture ("In London Town"), Op. 40, Sandmeier's student musicians were as alert and stylish as Novo's had been. Ensemble and balance between sections were excellent. After the bustling and rambunctious opening the musicians perfectly phrased the fulsome broad theme, marked so characteristically nobilmente. The unison horns were delightful. Among many very good solos were those of a very jaunty clarinet and a wistful cello.
Freed of narration and its popular use for educational concerts for children, Britten's Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Op. 34 gave every section of the orchestra a moment in the spotlight. (The version with spoken commentary is known as "The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.") Britten and Purcell are known for their ability to set the English language to music, and the 20th-century composer learned much of his craft from his 17th-century predecessor. A mere eight measures of the "Rondeau" from Purcell's incidental music for the play Abdelazar serve as the theme for Britten's ingenious set of variations. After being stated by the full orchestra, each of the instrumental families – woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion – take it up in turn. The variations are followed by a jocund fugue subject that is also taken up by each section in turn, leading to a rousing climax and a restatement of the original Purcell theme. All of Sandmeier's players met the challenges of this work and played the socks off it. Bravo!