With the passing of the Friends of the College and other series and with the high touring costs and travel retrenchments by major orchestras, local audiences have few chances to witness established international conducting talent in action. It did not take very many measures at the July 3 concert in Dana Auditorium, guest conducted by Andrew Litton, to realize that he was about to deliver the goods in spades. The Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra is the EMF's professional ensemble, made up of faculty members who come from many orchestras.
In William Schuman's evocative New England Triptych , Timpanist John Feddersen's dynamically and rhythmically precise opening solo was joined by the warm strings of the cello section, playing as one. As other sections joined in turn, they too revealed the same qualities of spot-on attacks and the tightest possible ensemble. All the brasses were brilliant, and Litton kept the strings-versus-brass balance ideal. There were several episodes in which the glowing viola section was paired with the woodwinds or the second violins alone. Flutist Les Roettges, oboist Eric Olson, bassoonist Cedric Coleman, and bass clarinetist Kelly Burke performed significant solos. I have never heard a better live performance of this favorite work.
Litton still has his "chops." In the tradition of Bernstein, he directed the standard symphonic (third) version of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and played the piano solo with considerable flair. The Steinway, its lid removed, was rotated so the keyboard faced the audience. From time to time the conductor arose briefly to give a cue, but most of the time he "had his hands full." The work had evidently been very well rehearsed; there were no false entries, but clearly a lot of careful counting was going on. Clarinetist Shannon Scott opened the work with a fine slow trill on a low note, swelling into the traditional wail. The area has not lacked for fine performances of this work, but Litton's held this listener enthralled completely. One drawback of the third version is that some details (such as the banjo part), are drowned out. Because of this and its different colors, thanks to its large saxophone section, I prefer Gershwin's second version for a theatre orchestra of about 35. That said, I relished every moment of this standard performance.
While waiting for the stage to be set up for the Gershwin, Litton told the audience that this concert was his NC debut. In order to forestall what he called his "dear Dallas audiences' tendency to disappear at intermission, before new works," he emphasized that the concert's second half consisted of music by the "good Ives before he went beyond the pale." The Second Symphony is very much in the Romantic mode of Brahms and Dvorák with the first traces of late Ives' collages of quotes from popular music and hymns thrown into the mix.
Every section of the orchestra was in top form for Litton's persuasive account of Ives's seminal score. Everyone managed all the "hair-pin" turns of phrase and rhythm. The widest possible range of dynamics was used. Portions where more than one tune is juxtaposed have never sounded clearer. Moving solos were given by cellist Neal Cary and Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer. One of the many restatements of "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" was given by trombonist Gregory Cox, a member of the N.C. Symphony in the late Swalin era. The horn section, led by Leslie Norton, was splendid.