Music Review



Eastern Music Festival Overview 2003: Week III

July 12, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:


At the conclusion of Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) in Dana Auditorium on July 8 the audience gave clarinetist Shannon Scott, violinist Jeffrey Multer, cellist Amy Frost Baumgarten and pianist James Giles three curtain calls. It was the very least they deserved for their carefully prepared and executed performance of one of the greatest chamber music works of the mid-20th century.

Messiaen was captured by the Germans in June 1940 and sent to Stalag 8A, where he met a violinist, a clarinetist, and a cellist. The first two still had their instruments, and later the cellist was given a cello, missing a string. The composer wrote a piece for them that eventually became the fourth movement ("Interlude") of the Quartet, which was completed in January 1941. Fifteen days later, with the composer playing a battered upright piano, the work was premiered before an international audience that included 5,000 POWs. Two central obsessions of the composer figure prominently in the Quartet: his love of bird songs and his profound Catholicism. Few works offer such an array of instrumental color. Giles played with the piano lid fully raised but never swamped his colleagues. It was unusual to see Baumgarten perched on a box usually used only for soloists with orchestras; perhaps this helped reinforce her lower notes. She sustained the long arching melody of the fifth movement, building it up to an almost unbearable intensity. The sudden drop from the loudest point to "pp" was striking. The sound of Scott's clarinet seemed to emerge seamlessly out of nowhere. Her breath control and phrasing were superb. Multer's violin took the prominent melody in the last movement, set against Giles' stark, repeated piano figure.

For several seasons, some of the most interesting programs at the Eastern Music Festival have been those of the Eastern Chamber Players centered around the composers who were interned in the Nazi "model" camp, Theresienstadt, before they were sent to be gassed elsewhere. These people had studied with Debussy, Dvorák, Janácek, Reger, and other composers, and they were poised to become significant voices in the mid-20th century..., but all that potential creativity was lost forever. Early scores and works composed while imprisoned have been used to make an interesting series that was well exemplified by two works that opened the July 8 concert.

Violinist Randall Weiss introduced the String Trio of Gideon Klein (1919-45). Paul Kling, one of Weiss' teachers, had known Klein at Theresienstadt; he described the composer as handsome and always with more than one girlfriend. (One might have been a cellist because of the important, extended lines for that instrument.) The Trio was Klein's last work. The first movement is elegant and has a wide dynamic range. There is a fleeting suggestion of the drone of a bagpipe. The slow movement, a set of variations in which heavy bowing produces a rich sound, is darker. In one of the variations, the cello's melody is set against pizzicato violin and viola; another has all three scurrying; one is slow and wistful; and yet another is all pizzicato. A muted violin set against pizzicato cello and viola was memorable. The variations are based on a Moravian folksong, "Variace na téma moravské lidové písne." All three movements feature what program annotator Steven Ledbetter describes as "tremendous rhythmic drive, through small patterns repeated in ostinato." This was most evident in the last movement. The cellist was Anthony Arnone and the violist, Ramona Merritt. All three players made the best possible case for this work. String trios are rare and interesting string trios are even rarer. This ought to be in any touring string trio's basic repertory.

Even more unusual was the combination used in the Concertino - for flute, viola and double bass - by Ervin Schulhoff (1894-1942). Its economical scoring features extreme ranges, from the high of the flute to the deeply resonant double bass, along with a suggestion of folk dances. Violist Daniel Reinker's instrument has a very warm color and projects unusually well; a friend said it was made by one of the four members of the Grancino family, 17th and 18th-century violinmakers in Milan and Cremona. Articulate mastery of the lowest notes at any tempo was always evident in Leonid Finkelshteyn's performance; he is the Principal Double Bass for both the Eastern Philharmonic and the NC Symphony. His booming pizzicatos were wonderful. Brian Gordon had easy control of the fastest runs, whether on the flute or the piccolo, which was used briefly in the lively final rondo.

After last week's imaginative American and 20th century menus, only the presence of a real rarity on each of the two all-student Festival Orchestra concerts kept them from seeming like retrograde surrenders to semi-pops programming.

Scott Sandmeier conducted the July 10 concert, and I suspect most of the rehearsal time went into Gustav Mahler's "Totenfeier" (a "Symphonic Movement" for orchestra). In the wake of a tempestuous affair with the wife of a German soldier, the composer had a spurt of creativity that yielded what became the First Symphony and then this gigantic march-like movement in c minor that would later become the first movement of the Second Symphony. Sandmeier's interpretation was stirring; I would like to hear him tackle the whole Second Symphony. All sections of the orchestra coped well, the string choirs most consistently. Kudos to the wonderfully-articulated and -projected five-member double bass section and the dozen cellos, for their burnished sound. The percussion and horns were fine, as were the woodwinds - the smooth sound of the oboes and bassoons will linger in my memory. Trumpets ranged from divine to tested: I loved their controlled quiet playing but some high-lying passages were scattershot. Still it was very promising playing by youngsters. I noticed several percussionists who had augmented the recent Mahler First Symphony with the faculty orchestra.

Sibelius' Finlandia ,Op. 26, fared just as well, with good work from the brasses and percussionists, who earned their warm applause and acknowledgments after the concert.

Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre received a stylish performance with full value given to French orchestral color and rhythmic vitality. The truly "pp" playing was ideal among the woodwinds: the oboe and the flute, with all those rapid notes, were outstanding. Concertmistress Lisa Obert's solos were extensive and were given splendid virtuoso treatment, with fine intonation and sensitive phrasing. At the end of the concert, she had earned the bouquet of flowers passed to her by the conductor.

After a rough start in the Polka, from Smetana's The Bartered Bride , the orchestra settled down for the Furiant, which had fine playing by the cellos and violas. The ensemble was strongest for the concluding Dance of the Comedians.

July 11 was a full day for this CVNC scribe! A fascinating hour and a half were spent on the crowded stage of Dana Auditorium with other music lovers and a lot of EMF students and faculty for a masterclass with violinist Pamela Frank. She used broad humor in an effort to get three accomplished students to relax and then go beyond mere technical mastery of their instruments so they could draw upon their experiences and feelings to communicate their own insights to the audience. She asked all three, "How do you feel or think about this piece?" There were no correct answers, but each player must first find his own answer as a basis for building an interpretation. She stressed freedom within the constraints of the score as well as making sure to do exactly what is in the score. She suggested a week on a couch with a score before any attempt with the violin. She stressed using full scores because clues to many of the soloist's decisions lie in what the accompanying instruments are doing. Maybe we critics have the cart before the horse when we praise a conductor and the orchestral accompaniment. Frank related that the soloist arrives for a concert and gets little if any rehearsal time or even a chance to explain "how I take this and that passage." She said the truth is that you follow them and stay together with them. Along the way, working with the first and last movements of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with two students, she stressed that students should not use recordings by others to prepare for a concert. "You're just using someone else's ideas, [and] they are often bad ideas, at odds with the score." She mentioned several often-heard errors.

The unidentified student pianist who played the first movements of the Bruch and Tchaikovsky concerti was amazing; he took care to phrase, musically. Frank had him raise the lid, "not just because both my parents are pianists" but because a soloist must learn to project over an orchestra. James Giles took over for the last movement of the Tchaikovsky. The three students were Courtney Sniderman, from Ohio, David Lou, from Florida, and fourteen-year-old Stefanie Collins, from Summerfield, N.C. The latter is one of three students of NCSA's Sarah Johnson at the festival. She is the winner of several regional awards and was featured in a newspaper preview of the EMF.

The all-student Festival Orchestra was in top form for its July 11 concert, given under the dynamic and precise direction of José-Luis Novo. The opening Lieutenant Kije Suite , Op. 60, by Sergei Prokofiev, was galvanic and witty and abounded with many delicious instrumental solos. I heard no flaws and lots of characterization in the off-stage trumpet of Noah Lambert. The sonorous double bass of Tony Rosario was rich, providing a solid floor. Other burnished string solos were given by cellist Amy McGinn and violist Rosalind Soltow. I was surprised to learn that the sassy saxophone solo was played by bassoonist Paul Curtis.

Ferdinand David's Trombone Concertino, in E-flat, Op. 4 (1837), was the evening's rara avis . David commissioned and premiered Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and served as a "technical advisor" on the violin writing. According to Ledbetter's fine notes, there were few trombone players back then and indeed the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, of which David was concertmaster, did not even have a trombone section at the time. The work is a typical bravura showpiece that focuses on "show(ing) off what brass players call the 'chops' of the performer - the player's ability to negotiate extremes of pitch, speed, and dynamics." The scoring for the soloist was engaging and not just a technical exercise. While there is interesting scoring for woodwinds and brass, the strings too often display the standard "busy-work" any composer of the period could use to pad a score. EMF Principal Trombonist James Box brought a smooth and easy line that hid a lot of the difficulties, delivering a real sense of bel canto with the melody. Box, who serves as an inspiration to the students, was an EMF student himself in 1993-4, winning the concerto competition in the latter year. He went on to Gerhardt Zimmermann's Canton (Ohio) Symphony and is now Principal Trombone of the famous Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.

The concert ended with a superb interpretation of Brahms' Tragic Overture, Op. 81, with extraordinary tight ensemble by the young musicians.

Virtuoso violinist Leila Josefowicz broke with staid tradition for her July 12 concert with the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra, eschewing traditional warhorses for an evening of bravura fiddling. She brought a seamless line to the famous "Méditation," from Jules Massenet's Thaïs . Her violin was like a diva in Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28. With a grin of delight, she seemed to toss off all what Ledbetter describes as the "runs, trills, turns and special effects" and the "sustained, singing lines, cadential sighs and elegant legatos" of the slow beginning. Prolonged, wild applause was rewarded with even more fiery technical displays, with more stops than I could count as well as a plethora of rapid technical feats in a show piece that nearby music lovers identified as Zigeunerweisen ("A Fantasy on Hungarian Themes"), Op. 20, No. 1, by Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). Guest conductor Gerard Schwarz provided a gossamer orchestral background for Josefowicz's tour de force. Sometimes it's fun to let your hair down and have some fun so this was a welcome straying from formulaic programming.

My least favorite Aaron Copland work, Danzón Cubano , opened the concert. Schwarz excelled in clarifying the complex rhythms that helped sell the piece.

We CVNC reviewers have heard far more than our share of run-of-the mill performances of that evergreen warhorse, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, in E Minor, Op. 64. Mercifully, this EMF performance was of a quality fully to justify its selection yet again. With every section of the orchestra playing at top form, Schwarz directed a dynamic and vital performance that proceeded without any break in its forward drive. Indeed, I have never heard the pause in the last movement, where premature applause is apt to erupt, taken so quickly - it almost failed to register. That would be my only caveat in one of the too few fine performances of this piece I have heard in nearly thirty years of attending concerts. All the string choirs were rich and burnished, and the brass and woodwinds, and the percussion, too, were wonderfully characterized. Prominent solos were played by Leslie Norton, horn, Shannon Scott, clarinet, and Eric Olson, oboe.