By the time the young chap on the back row of the percussion section started cranking the wind machine near the end of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, the audience already had been treated to a splendiferous mass of sound from the Eastern Festival Orchestra. And as Strauss’ Alpine “storm” fully developed, it became one of those knock-your-socks-off moments in classical music that can be so exhilarating.
This monumental program piece brought the 49th season of the Eastern Music Festival to a close, and Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus could barely contain the sound. The full symphony orchestra was augmented by several youth brass players, two harps, an organ (not immediately visible, though somewhere on stage), a thunder machine and a wind machine. And though some might dismiss this composition as overblown or over the top, it nevertheless is one of the most thrilling pieces in the orchestral repertoire.
The 20-plus episodes or scenes that make up Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64, describe in vivid musical terms the ascent and descent of a mountain, in which the climbers begin before dawn, pass by a meadow and pasture, encounter a storm along the way, and return at sunset. Not all is bombast, however, with some of the scenes quite simple and subtle. But this is music generally on a grand scale, with one of the grandest opening sections of all, and festival music director Gerard Schwarz and the players delivered the goods with energy and skill to spare.
As composed by Strauss in the early part of the last century, the music delivers sound-pictures of sunrise, clouds and fog, pastoral scenes and sunset, with a musical vision of night serving as bookends. The middle portions are accompanied by a variety of birdcalls, and Strauss’ use of piccolo, flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon in successive measures certainly conjures up images of a variety of birds.
The score can be tricky and challenging for conductor and players alike, and Schwarz and the Eastern Festival Orchestra displayed remarkable control and a polished ensemble sound throughout, even when the score seemed to be shooting off in several directions at once. The composition also gives some players a chance for meaningful solos, most notably Katherine Young’s lovely oboe solo over ultra-soft first and second violins.
Several composers wrote musical impressions of storms — Beethoven in Symphony No. 6, which Strauss admired; Rossini in the William Tell Overture; Grofe in Grand Canyon Suite; Richard Rodgers in Victory At Sea— but Strauss perhaps comes closest to the chaos, without resorting to cacophony. Schwarz maintained tight control over Strauss’ chaos, directing the expansive proceedings well, noting the differences in the dynamics, keeping good balance among sections and bringing out the full power of the ensemble at the appropriate moments.
The program opened with an equally thrilling, though more traditional, stalwart of the repertoire, Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77, with Gil Shaham as soloist. Playing a 1699 Stradivarius, Shaham exhibited incredible mastery over both the instrument and the music, bringing color, shading and nuance, along with boldness and energy, to a piece that occasionally winds up in the shadow of other Romantic-era concerti by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky. But the Brahms concerto is a signal achievement in its own right, with wonderful pairing of soloist and orchestra throughout, some dazzling solo portions and some sumptuous orchestral sections.
The opening allegro non troppo movement has a melancholy feel, almost a yearning, in the solo lines, and Shaham approached the music with such delicacy at the beginning of the movement that he was almost overpowered by the orchestra. This was perhaps the only time during the concerto that the balance was off, but the soloist and orchestra became more integrated in due course.
The soloist’s cadenza comes near the end of the first movement, and Shaham played Joseph Joachim’s extended cadenza brilliantly, with repetitive phrases an octave apart and doublestops seemingly from start to finish. Shaham didn’t seem fazed by the demands of the score, even though the audience might have been almost breathless.
The lovely adagio movement begins with a beautiful oboe line (by Katherine Young) and a nice wind ensemble, and the solo violin enters with a repeat of the oboe’s line. This is High Romantic composition of the first order, and the orchestra provided splendid support, with an especially silky smooth cushion of strings. Near the end, violin, oboe and bassoon engage in a lovely trio over the other players.
The third allegro giocoso movement, with its familiar opening theme by the soloist, resembles a gypsy dance and was played with great energy by Shaham and the orchestra. By the time the movement ended, the music took on the feeling of a horse race, with soloist and orchestra finishing in a dead heat of joy and exuberance.
The audience offered a sustained standing ovation in appreciation of Shaham’s artistry, and he returned to play one of his signature encores, Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau from the Partita No. 3, S. 1006 for solo violin.
What a way to end a season! And if Schwarz and festival organizers are looking for equally thrilling works to program during the Golden Anniversary next season, they might choose something like Berlioz’Symphonie Fantastique, Brahms’ First Symphony, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, Liszt’s Les Preludes, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (or, better yet, his Third Symphony), or, as an encore, the “Alpine Symphony” again. The musical talent and skills are there, in abundance.