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The balding red-headed guest conductor shuffled onto the stage a bit nervously, absent-mindedly greeted the concertmaster, timidly faced the audience and, turning his back to the hall, delivered a powerful performance of major Romantic repertory. Indeed, the audience in Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College caught its breath when it could, so exciting was this performance of the Festival Orchestra.
The evening opened with the rarely heard “In the South,” Op. 50 (also known as “Alassio”), written in 1903 by the venerated British composer, Sir Edward Elgar, perhaps best known for his "Pomp and Circumstance" marches and his Enigma Variations, Op. 36. Called a “concert overture” but actually more like a tone poem, “In the South” is a musical expression of the feelings and experiences Elgar and his wife experienced during a visit to the Italian Riviera. And as a tone poem, it owes to Richard Strauss many features, not least, the exuberant rising opening, evoking the arrogant confidence of Don Juan.
The strings stood out immediately with their intense rich tone and wide-ranging dynamic control (I have just heard the softest string pianissimo of the year). The principal viola (Daniel Reinker) was outstanding with his string of lovely and easy-going solos in the slower middle part of the work, which then reverted to the lively and intense restatement of the opening. This piece should be heard more often in these parts; it is an exciting and passionate addition to the Romantic repertory.
Mendelssohn sits on the cusp of the Romantic era, classical in form yet personal in expressivity and emotion. Educated classically and afforded the means to travel widely, Mendelssohn, in his short life (39 years), is credited with reviving interest in Bach, restoring Beethoven to his previous eminence and strengthening the ties between the orchestra and the conductor. He was also the superb composer of half a dozen symphonies, a handful of very popular concertos, several oratorios and cantatas and a great number of works for solo piano. A brilliant piano virtuoso himself, he wrote only two solo piano concertos, of which we were privileged to hear the first in G minor, Op. 25 this evening. It was masterfully played by guest soloist, William Wolfram, whose incandescent performance brought the audience to its feet. Only one quibble in an otherwise tasteful and brilliant performance – in the Finale, both times the piano opened with the main theme, Mr. Wolfram chose to artfully rush the ascending scale, which because of doubled notes the responding strings could not do, provoking rather a musical hiccough at the end of the phrase – an affectation we could have done without.
After intermission we were treated to a magnificent performance of Tchaikovsky’s popular Fourth Symphony, Op. 36 in F minor. No longer shocking in its proportions nor awkward in its unconventional tonal centers, this work has become a staple of the symphonic repertory and a favorite of audiences. The almost perfect entrance of the fateful horn fanfare ushered in some of the most beautifully polished playing of the season. Brilliant yet warm strings, powerful brass and precise woodwind playing made the performance rise above expectations – the solo bassoon version of the second theme of the first movement was gorgeous, as was the oboe solo which opens the melancholy second movement.
Again, much credit must go to Maestro Christopher Seaman for his very musical leadership. Although idiosyncratic in gesture, the technique was nonetheless quite effective. But above all, the performance was very musical – phrases were well executed and grand sections shaped with an eye to the big picture. Bravo, Maestro! This was indeed an exciting concert!