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The Eastern Festival Orchestra, the faculty ensemble of the Eastern Music Festival, served up a full night of music. At the podium was EMF Music Director Gerard Schwarz, leading this virtuoso orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s beloved Violin Concerto and Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 6 in A minor (“Tragic”). The soloist for the concerto was the Chinese rising star violinist, Tianwa Yang.
In order to have a memorable and successful performance of the Tchaikovsky (a warhorse if there ever were one), the soloist must play with remarkable presence and individuality, and that was certainly true in Yang’s performance to a sold-out audience in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus. From the opening utterance of the 20-something violinist, it was evident that this musician had a well-constructed and individual concept of the work.
For Yang, the opening movement was more about lyricism (stressing the second word of the “Allegro moderato” tempo marking) than about grandiose passion. What a wonderful sound, and I love it when performers seem to enjoy the music they are playing, as seen in Yang’s occasional smile that accompanied particularly lovely moments. For the record, there was no lack of brilliance or technical prowess, as was made abundantly obvious in the first-movement cadenza.
The second movement is a loving Canzonetta, and Yang’s playing here displayed the utmost tenderness to the point of fragility, as if the sound would crumble if a gentle breeze disturbed it. Whatever was held back in the first movement was more than compensated for in the Finale, which was just about as full of energy and breathtaking velocity as I have ever heard in this barnburner.
Throughout the work the EFO did a superb job of bringing instrumental colors to the fore, matching the soloist’s intent, and serving as a solid and sensitive partner in the music making. Maestro Schwarz kept everything in its place. Especially fun to watch were the soloist’s and the conductor’s interactions, especially clear in the final movement.
At the conclusion of the concerto the audience erupted from the seats, and after five returns to the stage, Yang treated the appreciative crowd to a single encore, a work for solo violin by Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931).
Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is a gargantuan classically arranged work in four movements, subtitled “Tragic.” (A friend of mine asked me if the term "Tragic" wasn’t more or less redundant for any Mahler symphony). The tragic aspect is not hard to miss as the composer pours on the pathos in the score: the relentless dirges, marches, and climactic moments that incorporate a distinctive funereal motto. Only one movement offers a respite; the Andante moderato (which Maestro Schwarz placed, with good historical precedent) as the second movement.
All this to say, that the work takes immense focus, concentration, and stamina on the part of both the musicians and the audience. Those who stuck it out for the second half of the concert were richly rewarded. Utilizing a huge orchestra, Mahler is able to deliver gigantic climaxes as well as unusually hued passages of exquisite beauty (like the use of un-tuned cowbells to evoke the mountain country in which Mahler resided).
The first movement (clocking in at over 25 minutes) begins with a dark march that features great solo brass playing, quickly leading to one of the main motives of the piece — a “triumphant” major triad that sinks into a minor one, over an ominous percussion death beat. There are some soaring violin melodies, to be sure, but they all eventually sink into the abyss.
Solos abound from all sections, and each was exquisitely crafted and added to the overall drama and beauty of the score. The 30-plus-minute finale is a sprawling, wide-ranging affair that encompasses just about every emotion that can be musically depicted.
Through the entire proceedings, Maestro Schwarz proved to be indefatigable. Whether leading the ensemble to cataclysmic climaxes, cuing a solo, or shaping a romantic violin line, he was ever-present to the moment. Often times he appeared to be a painter conjuring up a particular color — a bit of English horn, a tad of solo violin, a taste of horn — all in the service of the Mahlerian effect. Those in attendance will not soon forget this performance, one of the rare opportunities to hear this magnificent score.