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Eastern Music Festival 2003: Week V

July 26, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:


Tumultuous weather discouraged audience turnout on July 22 for the final EMF professional chamber music performance of sextets that mixed horns, woodwinds and strings.

Beethoven's early Sextet, Op. 81b, for string quartet and two horns, is rarely performed or recorded. It was composed between 1794-95, and although the parts were published in 1810, the first full score was not issued until 1846. It was written for a pair of natural horns (without valves) that, Steven Ledbetter's notes explain, "could only be played in keys closely related to its home base - here E-flat major." The notes that couldn't be played "gave rise to characteristic 'horn call' melodies that skipped unplayable notes." In the first movement, beautifully played by Leslie Norton and Kevin Kozak, perfectly blending and diverging by turns, the composer reveled in these specific qualities. The dynamics were carefully adjusted to match that of the string quartet - violinists Penny Kruze and Shawn Weil, violist Stephen Kruse, and cellist Lawrence Stromberg. The first and last movements make extensive use of "horn calls," and the lovely slow movement has a glowing melody for the brass pair.

Mládi, a suite for wind sextet by Leos Janácek, was colorful and pulsing; it features what various authors describe as "speech melody," reflecting "the rhythms and intervals of Moravian dialects" and evident in both vocal and instrumental works of the composer. The first and last movements are filled with trills and rapidly repeated figures. The second movement opens with a deep bass clarinet melody, played on this occasion by Judith Donaldson. Clarinetist Shannon Scott and bassoonist Cedric Coleman opened the third movement, derived from an earlier march. Flutist Les Roettges switched to piccolo for this section, and oboist Eric Olson and hornist Kevin Reid had trills aplenty.

Brahms' fine and rich sounding Sextet in B-flat, Op. 18, ended the program. The players were violinists John Fadial and Anthony DeMarco, violists Sarah Cote and Diane Phoenix-Neal, and cellists Hannah Holman and Beth Vanderborgh.

When I first heard the Ciompi String Quartet, cellist Sharon Robinson was in her last season as the cellist. She later married violinist Jaime Laredo, and has had a successful career as a soloist and a chamber musician in the highly regarded Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Piano Trio and elsewhere. I attended her July 23 masterclass in the EMF's smaller performance facility, Sternberger Hall. Cello student Edward Haskins, from Richmond, Virginia, had prepared the first movement of Edouard Lalo's Cello Concerto in D Minor. He is a student of EMF Principal Cello Neal Cary, who is also the Principal of the Richmond Symphony. Laura Ewing, from Saint Cloud, Minnesota, had prepared the theme and first three variations of Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme. Sixteen-year old Alan Richardson spent part of his birthday playing the third movement of Haydn's Cello Concerto in C. All the students had committed their scores to memory.

Robinson recalled that one of her most stressful experiences as a student at the NC School of the Arts occurred when she participated in one of Leonard Rose's masterclasses. While she tried to ease her charges' tensions, she worked to help them produce greater volume from their instruments in order to project the sound to the back of the hall. She demonstrated several of her long-standing exercises, such as building up a range of different vibratos on each and every string, etc. She stressed fidelity to the score and the need to make a real emotional connection with a work before communicating it to an audience. Some guidance toward improving intonation was also given.

The weekend flood of relatives, friends, and teachers assured a full house for the July 25 Festival Orchestra concerto competition concert, which an EMF news release said "starred some of the youngest students to achieve virtuosity in the forty-two year history of the Festival." Both all-student Festival Orchestras performed: Scott Sandmeier conducted three separate concerto movements before intermission, and then José-Luis Novo led the second orchestra in two movements. The sections of both groups played with fine ensemble and good balance. The work of the soloists was commendably integrated, and there were noteworthy contributions from the principals, too. All five soloists played without scores and brought high degrees of individuality to their concertos. None seemed to be automatically churning out a memorized score.

The jazz-like qualities of the first movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G were brought out by the orchestra and soloist Ruishi Chen. The 18-year-old is from Guangzhou, China, and she has already won a number of awards. She studied with EMF faculty member Yoshikazu Nagai at the Interlochen Arts Academy and will attend the San Francisco Conservatory of Music this fall.

Stefani Collins, 14, from Summerfield, N.C., had already been heard when she played her selection, the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, during Pamela Frank's masterclass. She brought out more of the joyful quality this time and played with excellent intonation and bravura, producing good tone, well projected. She has several Triangle connections, having studied with Dorothy Kitchen (Duke String School) and Ruth Johnsen. She is one of three EMF students of the NCSA's Sarah Johnson. The NC Symphony and the Winston-Salem Symphony have awarded her concerto competition prizes.

The winner of the Rachmaninov Competition in Kiev, 15-year-old Irina Arbatskaya, from Odessa, Russia, brought out the deep romantic qualities of the third movement of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. She has already given concerts in America, Ukraine, Italy, Greece, and in Vienna, Austria. She had more than enough upper body strength to give the music all the weight it needed, producing a deep, resonant tone.

There seemed to be no limit to Miran Kim's technical virtuosity in her selection, Henri Vieuxtemps' Violin Concerto No. 5. Although it is not a work of great depth, Kim's excellent intonation - especially in the many high, exposed notes and also in the double stops - and her great variety of trills and accuracy in rapid passages were their own rewards in this showpiece. She is in her first season at the EMF, but the New Jersey native has spent seven years at the Aspen Music Festival. Her first public concert was given when she was 6 years old. In 2000, she was accepted at Juilliard as a student of Dorothy Delay.

Pianist Wei-Han Wu, from Shin-Chu, China, was a stand-out from the other students for two reasons: his quickly changing hair color and - more importantly - the deep musicianship he displayed as the "unidentified accompanist" for part of Pamela Frank's masterclass. Despite his slight build, he has enough upper body power to handle the third movement of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto. His phrasing was outstanding, and the fastest passages were cleanly articulated. Instead of blond hair, Wu sported a bright day-glow-red coiffure at the concerto competition.

The traditional matinee concert on July 26 gave family and friends of EMF students a chance to hear them in action as members of one of the two all-student orchestras, which played a diverse program of orchestral showpieces. Both orchestras executed the music with good-quality sectional ensemble, and there were good (or better) individual solos from the section principals.

Novo conducted the first half of the concert, leading two selections that displayed a wide range of orchestral color and subtle changes of rhythm. Joaqu?n Turina's Danzas fantasticas , Op. 22, consists of three dances, a "jota Aragonese" that begins with impressionistic delicacy but builds to a grandiose climax, a Basque zortziko that Ledbetter's notes describe as a "sweetly sad daydream," an Andalusian farruca, "a wake-up call," that features a driving rhythm, here enhanced by fine work from both woodwinds and brass and a memorable romantic moment near the end with solos by the principal cellist and concertmistress.

An extra rehearsal might have added more assurance to an otherwise beautiful performance of Ravel's "Alborado del gracioso." The pizzicatos were however perfectly judged, and the woodwinds and percussion played with considerable character. Outstanding solos were performed by the bassoon, clarinet, flute, trumpet, and cello.

Although called Jazz Suite No. 2, Dmitri Shostakovich's 1938 work is more accurately labeled Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1 since it contains no jazz elements at all. It was written for an orchestra designed by Soviet authorities to channel and control the "excess freedom" of real jazz. Sandmeier conducted the second all-student orchestra in this set of marches, waltzes, and polkas that gave every section a workout. There was a fine solo from either a saxophone or bass clarinet (the sightline was poor) and from the xylophone, and a delicious "raspberry" erupted from the brass section at one point. The spirit of the dances was heavy - almost German - rather than light, in the manner of traditional Viennese operetta.

Sandmeier and his enthusiastic, un-jaded musicians managed to deliver the only musically sensitive live performance of Tchaikovsky's much abused 1812 Overture that I have heard in nearly 30 years of concert-going. The first four cellos and two violas began the Russian chant that is the basis for the opening largo, intoning with apt resonance before the theme was taken up, in turn, by other sections. There was plenty of fire in the faster section with its battle of the national anthems. Sandmeier's deployment of several off-stage bass drums and extra trumpets was more effective than real cannon fire at an outdoor pops concert would have been.

Because the demand for tickets exceeded seating for the traditional festival dinner, awards granting half scholarships to seven students, should they return to the EMF next year, were announced after intermission: pianists Erika Allen, of Blue Hill, Maine, and Janneke Brits, of Worthington, Ohio; cellist Laura Ewing, of Saint Cloud, Minnesota; oboist Nicolas Stovall, of Austin, Texas; violinst Stefani Collins, of Summerfield, NC; doublebassist Tony Rosario, of Denton, Texas; and violinst Shanna Swarington, of Wilkesboro, NC, who has completed four years at the EMF.

The final concert of the faculty-staffed Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra was a crowd-pleaser for those who filled Dana Auditorium on July 26. Laredo, a noted violinist, was the last of this season's guest conductors and the soloist in the first work, Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor, S.1041. A reduced string orchestra, without harpsichord continuo, was used. Laredo made full use of the resources of his modern violin, producing a full and warm tone, blending with the first violins in tutti passages and emerging above them for the solos. The balances were excellent, and the tempos allowed time for the music to register - there was no "sewing machine Bach" here.

Laredo's Nimbus recordings of several Mendelssohn symphonies (with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra) have long been high on lists of recommended versions. All the virtues of those interpretations were on display in his vital direction of the Symphony No. 3, in A Minor, Op. 56 ("Scottish"). The strings had the correct "light touch" so necessary for this composer, particularly the fast second movement. The woodwinds and brass were blended superbly throughout.

Robinson, Laredo's wife and piano trio partner, was the soloist for Dvor?k's great Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104. Their interpretation was well within established tradition but included some nice individual expressive touches. Robinson produced a rich, full tone, and Laredo carefully held the orchestral dynamics in check so her solo line was never covered. There was a chamber-music quality to the dialogs between the cellist and various section principals. Excellent and significant solos were given by hornist Norton, clarinetist Scott, and oboist Olson.

I have attended EMF concerts since 1979, and I found this season the best yet. The quality of the playing of the faculty orchestra and both student orchestras was consistently high. There has been steady improvement in the last five years. The concerts conducted by Laredo and Dmitri Sitkovetsky were especially rewarding. We look forward to the announcement of a new EMF Music Director who will lead the Festival to an even higher musical level.

The Triangle was well represented at this year's EMF. These are the players and their hometowns: violinists Melissa Gessner (Durham), Jason Huang (Chapel Hill), and Ian Livingston (Hillsborough), cellist Jessica Tirpak (Morrisville), harpist Domenique Tanzini (Raleigh), and pianists Audrey Low (Chapel Hill) and Andrew Tyson (Durham). From elsewhere in NC came the following: violinists Stefani Collins (Summerfield), Benjamin Grube (Jamestown), Jessica McJunkins (Charlotte), Rachel Mondl (Winston-Salem), Shanna Swarington (Wilkesboro), and Chelsea Whittaker (Greensboro); doublebassist Derek Moore (Kannapolis); oboists Jonna Boldin (Lenoir) and Kendra Hawley (Wilmington); clarinetist Sarah Lloyd (Fayetteville), bassoonist Zach Morgan (Waxhaw); hornist Laura Carter (Greenville); trumpeter William Hobbs (Siler City); trombonist John Porter (Pilot Mountain); percussionist Roger Duckett (Hendersonville); harpist Kathryn Mullins (Matthews); and pianist Hattie Chung (Greensboro). All told, there were 200 students at the EMF this summer, of which 22 were pianists.