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Eastern Music Festival 2003 Second Week: Overview of Four Concerts

July 5, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:


Expectations for the length of a previously unheard piece of music can lead to a critic's chagrin when he gets lost in a series of unexpectedly brief works! The first half of the Eastern Chamber Players' program of all-American composers, heard July 1 in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College Campus, led to my mea culpa. This part of the concert featured brass ensemble with percussion in two cases. Samuel Barber's "Mutations from Bach," for four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, and timpani, was my undoing. It was played brilliantly with the trumpets arranged antiphonally across from the trombones and with tuba and timpani and the horns in between. Barber took the tune "Christ, Thou Lamb of God" and gave it four treatments that were played seamlessly, without pauses. The first was a very solemn adaptation of Joachim Decker's made in 1604. This was followed by a rich harmonization and then an elaborate contrapuntal treatment, both by Bach. It ended with Barber's own "mutation," featuring a muted trumpet in a high register. The employment of brass mutes is a part of the double meaning of the title. This piece went by so fast that I thought the audience was applauding too soon, though the players' acknowledgement ought to have cued me! No wonder I was surprised to hear clear "Copland-like" scoring in what I thought was the second part. It was Copland's brief "Ceremonial Fanfare," for brass ensemble, pleasant enough but less interesting than the Barber.

Alas Charles Ives' "From the Steeples and the Mountains," S.65, was given in an arrangement in which two pianos took over part of the original set of four chimes or bells. A trumpet and a trombone flanked the "percussionists" - two pianos and one set of tubular bells. Ives wanted to suggest the experience of change-ringing and, according to Steven Ledbetter's program notes, the composer "guarantee(ed) dissonant combinations because of a semitone separation of the scales." This was so brief that I would recommend that it might be played twice next time it is programmed.

Eric Ewazen's three movement "Frost, Fire," for brass quintet, proved to be more interesting fare than most such works and was given a colorful and virtuoso performance by trumpeters Judith Saxon and Rodney Mack, Principal Horn Leslie Norton, trombonist Gregory Cox, and Lee Hipp, the agile tuba player.

CVNC reviewed the premiere of Nathaniel Stookey's String Quartet No. 2 ("Musée Mécanique") in the spring of 2002, and I reviewed a fine retrospective of his music that was presented UNCG's Contemporary Music series last spring. Stookey was on hand for the first EMF performance of his Quartet. Before it was played, he was interviewed at length by Randy Weiss, who had been the young composer's violin teacher in San Francisco. Early on, the composer said, he found that each time he auditioned with the violin, he was moved further back in the orchestra while he was complimented for his compositions. Hsiao-mei Ku (second violinist of the Ciompi Quartet, which played the work's premiere) headed the EMF ensemble; she was joined by violinist Courtney LeBauer, violist Suzanne Rousso, and cellist Christopher Horton. Stookey had several tapes of pop music that influenced at least the mood of several of the five movements - the Beatles' song "I'm only Sleeping" and a selection by the Artist Known as Prince. He had the quartet play excerpts or parts. When two separate components of the "Chaser" movement unintentionally ended together, Ku quipped it was hard to undo years of training to be together. Stookey said that a major influence from pop music was the idea that things "rhythmically happen off the beat." The second movement, "Plucker," with its pizzicatos, has always been the most immediately appealing section. Near the end, the viola gives a foretaste of the music of the fourth movement, "Grinder." The third movement, "Opener" - referring to wrenching open, and featuring lots of open strings - is the emotional center of gravity of the work. The composer described "Grinder" as "State Fair Music," vague and lazy - like some country music. The last movement, "Mixer," has the most intense rhythmic activity and references to all the preceding movements. Stookey said it was "like Vivaldi meets Deadweight - a San Francisco Band." Ku's last violin notes evoked the sound of Jimi Hendrix. With all the discussion before the performance providing a welcome aid to broader appreciation, the Quartet was very warmly received and impressed me even more than it did at the premiere.

Both student orchestras proved to be playing at a very high level of ensemble at two concerts heard in Dana Auditorium on July 3 and 4. The stage was well filled with musicians - the July 3 orchestra had twelve cellos while the July 4 concert had eleven. Conductor Jose-Luis Novo led vital performances of 20th century works in his July 3 concert. Leonard Bernstein's Divertimento for Orchestra, commissioned for the Boston Symphony's 1981 centennial, was an ideal vehicle to show off the strengths of each section of the student orchestra. Orchestral balance was outstanding and ensemble within each string choir was amazingly tight. Quick rhythmic changes held no fear, and all the brasses were outstanding. There were fine solos from the Concertmistress and Principal Cello and from the viola, oboe, clarinet, and trumpet - perfectly muted - too.

Pianist James Giles brought an aristocratic and elegant touch to Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. The fastest passages were articulated with perfect clarity and the whole piece was beautifully phrased. Novo and the orchestra were fully worthy partners in an exciting interpretation.

Leos Janácek's Sinfonietta is a favorite piece whose opening fanfare calls for thirteen brass instruments and timpani that return at the beginning of the last movement. Nine trumpeters stood at the back of the stage and played away lustily. I spotted one faculty member in their number. There are two schools of Janácek interpretation within his native Czech Republic. By far the smoother is the "Prague School," who adherents look down their noses at the "provincials" of Brno, the composer's hometown; the "Brno School" practitioners revel in all the dissonances in his scores. I fall firmly in that camp and loved Novo's intense and pungent performance. The players readily handled all the characteristic repetitive motives that are the basic elements of the piece as well as what D. Kern Holoman, writing in Evenings with the Orchestra , describes as the "episodes of sudden and unexpected harmonic shifts" along with "pervasive ostinato rhythms" that are sometimes "mirror(ed) in the underlying rhythmic patterns." This was a most impressive concert by any standards.

The Festival Orchestra played an all-20th-century American program that presented many challenges. Scott Sandmeier conducted and gave cogent background and led brief excerpts from the first three demanding pieces. John Adams was attracted to both the rhythm and ambiguity of the word "lollapalooza," which H. L. Mencken thought might have referred to a knockout punch in boxing and which (Ledbetter reports) the composer said "suggests something large, outlandish, oversized, not unduly refined." The word's rhythm is constantly repeated within the brass instruments, beginning with the trombone. The seven-minute piece ends abruptly with a couple of what the composer called "terminal whacks" on the bass drum. It was certainly a fun piece with which to warm up an orchestra.

Sandmeier lad extensive excerpts from two fragments or sketches by Charles Ives that had been orchestrated by Gunther Shuller. Both of these early works had the layering of popular and college songs and hymns and other collage-like scoring that characterize his mature works. "The General Slocum " is a brief tone poem about the famous 1904 riverboat tragedy.* It is a wonderfully pungent and colorful score that does not wear out its welcome. The players have unique directions such as to "not play together" or "above all else, don't play this in tune!" In order to portray the ship's engine, the cellos and violas must play their parts by each section slowing down and speeding up independently. To evoke a deck band heard from below, the players must avoid rendering their snatches of popular songs in tune. As the engine's condition goes critical, shattering percussion and alarm bells ring out forte and the slipping of the ship under the water is suggested by the return of the rippling notes of the cellos. A solo cello plays a fleeting fragment of "Nearer My God To Thee" as a requiem for the dead.

Ives' "The Yale-Princeton Football Game" was described by Sandmeier as "two halves in two minutes." In this 1899 sketch, the shrill piccolo is the referee while the bassoons are amusingly and surprisingly the cheerleaders. The famous "flying wedge" is represented by what Ledbetter describes as "dissonant chords contracting" which form a wedge shape on the score. Continuing, Ledbetter writes, "Zigzag scales in the trumpet portray the broken field running." Simultaneous (of course!) fragments of old school songs are heard - "Old Nassau" for Princeton and "Dear Old Yale" for Yale. The persistence of the latter at the end names the winner. The brass play Reeves' "2nd Regiment" quickstep while the cellos, the violas and English horn play "Watch on the Rhine." All this was packed into two minutes and was played amazingly well.

Gideon Rubin was superb in two Gershwin works, "I've Got Rhythm" Variations and the Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. Neither is top-drawer Gershwin but they can be delightful when heard in live concert with a pianist with both the technique and the panache to bulldoze over any objections. The strings had a good massed sound for the more romantic stretches and the brass, percussion, and woodwinds were up to the jazzier parts. The ending of Second Rhapsody still sounded like a forced attempt to copy the Rhapsody in Blue, but that's the composer's fault.

There was some shaky or uneven trumpet playing in Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," played by percussion and two brass choirs arrayed across the back of the stage. They settled down and played more closely together as the piece progressed. A lively and dynamic performance of the Suite from Copland's "Billy the Kid" ended the concert. Orchestral balances were excellent and the dynamic range was wide indeed with some fine soft playing. Good solos were given by the horn, flute, and oboe, and I was very impressed with some beautifully judged muted trumpet solos as well as that player's more robust contributions.

A full house heard a program of two basic repertory works on the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra's July 5 concert, conducted by Maximiano Valdés. There was no biographical information on Valdés, who was a guest conductor in the 2002 EMF season.

Pianist Horacio Gutiérrez wrung every ounce of poetry from Chopin's First Piano Concerto. He deployed a wide dynamic range with an extensive and refined palette of quiet and expressive playing and pianistic colors. There was no want of dazzling arpeggios and trills, all used for musical significance, not just empty display. Valdés and the orchestra provided a better than usual orchestral context and the musical lines were nicely clarified. Hornist Norton and Principal Bassoon Cedric Coleman were outstanding. Their duet as a background for Gutiérrez's piano line was memorable.

Valdés began Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major ("Titan") slowly and then meticulously built it up from the first movement through to the finale's triumph-affirming apotheosis. All the orchestra sections were in splendid form. The whooping horns and John Feddersen's timpani at the end of the first movement were standouts. Several advanced students were added to fill out the additional percussion and to bring the horn section to eight players (who stood and blazed gloriously in the finale). There were numerous woodwind solos - from flutist Les Roettges, oboist Eric Olson, and bassoonist Coleman. Important string solos were played by Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer and deskmate John Fadial and by double bassist Leonid Finkelshteyn. The cello section had important roles, and the viola section managed its brusque attack near the end admirably. The prolonged standing ovation allowed Valdés ample time to acknowledge important individual and section efforts.

*A review of a new book on the General Slocum disaster is in the 7/6/03 edition of the N&O , online at http://newsobserver.com/features/arts/story/2673098p-2478466c.html [inactive 5/04].