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The brilliant American pianist Awadagin Pratt spent a week at the Eastern Music Festival, capping public events that included chamber music and masterclasses with a performance of Mozart's Concerto No. 23 in Dana Auditorium on Friday night. The concert featured the festival's Young Artists Orchestra, a collection of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teens with impressive talent and credentials whose playing often rivaled fully-professional ensembles with years more experience. At the helm was Gerard Schwarz himself, the EMF's Music Director. And smoothly working the front of the house was the EMF's exceptionally savvy Executive Director Stephanie Cordick, among whose many assets is her long and in-depth experience in the performing arts in Guilford County.
Ever since Sheldon Morgenstern* launched the EMF 47 years ago, its faculty orchestra has been viewed by music connoisseurs as one of the best in the state — despite the fact that it is a somewhat ad hoc group, re-formed and refreshed every summer. But in the recent past, the festival's student orchestras (and yes, there are enough youngsters to form several of them) have been recognized as competitive with the finest one can hear anywhere in the country, too. For much of this Young Artists Orchestra program, the players' work reaffirmed all expectations and then some, delivering well-known scores, two of which were, for a time, virtual war horses, with technical brilliance, enthusiasm, and savoir-faire far beyond the mean age of the executants. There were a few minor lapses, here and there, but nothing that another rehearsal couldn't have rectified. Alas, we don't know who was who in the ranks this time, aside from the concertmaster, identified in welcoming remarks from the stage as Seula Lee. She's one of fifty student fiddlers, ranging in age from 14 to 20, ten of whom are from NC. She hails from Carrollton, Texas and she's all of 17 years old. Ah, to be so young (again) and so talented!
Things got underway with Hanson's Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 (1930). The so-called "Romantic" Symphony, which many find a good deal more Sibelian than American, is the composer's best-known work, thanks in part to the long-running radio program "Music from Interlochen," which used music from this score as its theme. That said, it's no longer heard nearly as often as once was the case, so it was particularly good to hear it played by these young musicians, most of whom were (surely) encountering the work for the first time. The fact that they were led with keen alertness, precision, and care by Schwarz, one of our nation's strongest advocates of American music, was icing on the proverbial cake.
Mozart concerti don't figure nearly as much in contemporary programming as some of us think they should. (The reason is that splashier romantic pieces are in fact easier to perform convincingly and tend to sell more tickets, too....) For the Concerto in A, K.488 (Vienna, 1786), the sizes of the string sections were reduced to balance the single flute and pairs of clarinets, bassoons, and horns. Mozart is hard, and there's no place to hide, so it's not surprising there were some blurs here and there within the orchestral ensemble. But balance with the guest soloist was close to ideal, and the keyboard playing was in many respects a revelation.
Awadagin Pratt is at the very top of his game at the moment, so his solo work, his chamber music performances, and his playing in concerto settings place him among the world's leading artists. Purists might have wondered about some of the pedaling (and, perhaps, about some of the emphatic foot stomping!) — but then purists would have complained about the "big piano" and the orchestra's metal strings and valved horns, too.... Everyone else, which is to say, the nearly full house, on this occasion, seemed enthralled and enraptured by Pratt's intelligent and engaging approach, the wondrous articulation and the clarity he achieved, and his complete sympathy with the score and his performing colleagues. This was Mozart in the class of some of the great artists of the past and the handful of specialists who, along with Pratt, enrich our musical lives today. The improvisatory cadenza in the first movement, which in several minutes provided a complete summation of the work's most important themes, was by the soloist himself. The slow movement, which, as Pratt told us, featured Mozart's embellishments and ornamentations, was an heartfelt study of what makes this composer's music continue to resonate after all these years. And the finale was just terrific, a frothy and exhilarating delight that was concurrently awesome from the standpoint of the coordination it required of those kids in the band and that whiz kid on the piano bench — for which Schwarz, Pratt, and the orchestra members were loudly and lengthily acclaimed.
The concert ended with what program annotator Steven Ledbetter told us was a combination of the first and second suites (1911 and 1919, respectively) from Stravinsky's Firebird, which means that it offered a few sections not routinely heard in this format. The orchestra, which included three harps(!), was large, and there were numerous outstanding solo bits from numerous players. Schwarz again demonstrated his outstanding leadership skills in a combination of close coordination with extensions of some freedom to individuals during solo bits. The result was rapturously received by the crowd, which seemed to carry on even more than it had for the Hanson and the Mozart. That's understandable, of course, since this is probably Stravinsky's most accessible score (perhaps alongside the much-less-often-heard Pulcinella). The fact that its players were, again, most likely mastering it for the first time surely made a big difference, too. Bravo!
*In the EMF's impressive program book, Jeaneane Williams provides a stirring remembrance of Morgenstern, who passed away December 16, 2007, in Geneva.
Notes: The EMF continues through August 10. For details of remaining performances, click here [inactive 03/11]. Awadagin Pratt may be seen and heard in a short video posted by the News & Record: see http://www.news-record.com/content/2008/07/25/article/pianist_stops_by_emf. And although it would have been a lot less expensive to have heard him in Greensboro, those who missed Pratt may catch up with him on a classical music cruise in the Med this fall; for details, see http://www.insightcruises.com/ top_d/cl01_top.html [inactive 10/09].