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Friday evening at the Eastern Music Festival, Dana Auditorium rocked with musical fireworks as both student orchestras inaugurated the 2008 season with appropriate Independence Day repertory. Each orchestra, with its own conductor, took the stage for half the concert, the first of 14 concerts presented by all the orchestras. The faculty orchestra, professional musicians all, led for the most part by EMF Music Director Gerard Schwarz, presents five consecutive Saturday night concerts starting July 5th, featuring Midori playing Brahms' Violin Concerto. The student orchestras perform in Dana Hall on Thursday and Friday nights. A complete schedule of all concerts can be found online.
The Eastern Music Festival was the brainchild of the late Shelly Morgenstern (1939-2007) who was memorialized on this occasion by early participants and fund-raisers. And what a vision he had! As I wandered the peaceful Guilford College campus Friday afternoon, I looked into the intelligent faces of eager and friendly teenagers and gave my own thanks to Shelly. In 1961, he persuaded a college president to lend the campus, personally begged fine musicians from around the country to join the faculty for a pittance, and auditioned children wherever he could find them, all this in order to come together to teach, learn, and play the world's greatest music.
Aaron Copland's "Outdoor Overture," led by British native and guest conductor David Lockington, opened the concert with a bang. Commissioned in 1938 by the High School for Music and Art in New York, the work is vintage Copland, showing his preference for large melodic intervals, a jazzy flair, and strong cross-rhythms. The rhythmic punctuations of the lower brass (horns, trombones, and tuba) were most impressive, as was the rich warm tone of the string sections.
David Diamond's Fourth Symphony was next, and although the students played exquisitely, the work seemed to meander through the first two of its three movements, without discernable shape. However, the driving rhythms of the third (final) movement soon made one forget the previous ambiguities. This symphony has been recorded by the Seattle Symphony, under the direction of Gerard Schwarz, and is available on the Naxos label and online, at http://www.naxos.com/.
After intermission, the other student orchestra, this time directed by Spanish native and long-time faculty member at EMF, José-Luis Novo, took the stage behind the Steinway grand piano to accompany Christina Dahl in George Gershwin's unforgettable "Rhapsody in Blue." Soloist Dahl, a nine-year veteran faculty member of EMF, handled the difficult piano solo part with strength and verve, making the most of the occasional whimsical softer passages and pedaling furiously in the hyperactive final moments. Excellent playing of the muted trumpets and trombones with their wah-wah mutes brought titters from the audience.
The concert closed with a rousing performance of Tchaikovsky's blockbuster, the "1812 Overture," with ten added brass players in the balcony of Dana. Audiences never seem to tire of what has become de rigueur repertory for Independence Day concerts. Perhaps because the piece is so familiar, conductor Novo introduced many tempo changes into the usually straight-forward score. They didn't seem to make the piece any fresher and often were disconcerting. But the musicians and audience clearly enjoyed themselves.
Two fine young violinists were selected by the string faculty of the Eastern Music Festival to play for world-class virtuoso and esteemed teacher Midori Goto, universally known as "Midori." Before a crowd of several hundred in the Sternberger Auditorium on the Guilford College campus, Sophie Pariot and Holly Jenkens each played a work from the violin repertory and then took a public lesson from Midori. The entire master class lasted from 4:15 until 5:45 p.m., leaving the musicians and audience just enough time to eat and return for the evening orchestra concert in Dana Auditorium.
First to play was 15-year-old Sophie Pariot from Loveland, Ohio, discreetly and attentively accompanied by Rick Masters on the piano. She played the first movement of the Dvorák Violin Concerto. Visibly nervous at first, she was soon in her cups, impressing all with her playing and her memory. Midori, who had sat out in the audience while the mature young lady played, put her at ease by immediately complimenting her musicality and interpretation, saying, "It was so pure and simple, in the good sense!" And, as with her comments later, she spoke only about communicating the musical meaning to the audience – never once did she mention violin technique, nor did she change a single bowing or fingering. (Of course, when she demonstrated a phrase or concept, she used her own preferred bowing, and sometimes the difference was striking.)
"Put yourself in the audience in your mind, and see if the audience is really getting what you are trying to communicate." Midori tried to coax Sophie out of her musical shyness, suggesting, "It doesn't always have to be technically impressive but it always has to sing! ... Tell the story – get every note out, not just the long or the important ones, but every note!" She also demonstrated the passages where Dvorák was using his love for Bohemian folk music, and she suggested that keeping an even and steady tempo was perhaps more expressive than slowing down the sentimental passages and speeding up on the technical ones. Clearly Sophie took it all to heart.
Holly Jenkens, 17, from House Springs, MO, played Ravel's "Tzigane," admirably accompanied by her sister, Robin, 19. Indeed, in the faster parts of this masterpiece, it was hard to tell which of the sisters was having the most fun! "Tzigane" is an unusual piece in that more than half of the work is for solo violin, without any accompaniment at all. And furthermore, the first quarter is played exclusively on the "G" string, making it a real test of technique and intonation. When the piano enters, in a harp-like figure, it is to prepare the last half of the work, rapid variations on themes first heard in the first half. The whole work is a musical tour-de-force!
Again, Midori addressed only the purely musical concepts, pointing out rests and dots over notes which needed to be respected scrupulously to bring out some of the wry humor Ravel wrote into the score. And again she referred to the importance of always returning to Ravel's tempo markings when he asked for it. And finally, she said, "You should sound as though you are making up the music on the spot. It should be spontaneously expressive."
The afternoon was enlightening to the whole audience, which applauded all the participants warmly.
Note: EMF events continue through August 2. For details, click here.