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With an enormous selection of summer music festivals for professional musicians to attend – many in more exotic locales than Greensboro – it is a testament to the high quality of the Eastern Music Festival (EMF) that there is a high percentage of faculty that keep returning to this festival, celebrating its 49th year, and playing in their top tier Eastern Festival Orchestra. This concert was a truly gala event featuring a world premiere, several awards to the movers and shakers of EMF and spectacular performances of two warhorses played as if we were hearing them for the first time.
After several presentations and recognition of supporters of the festival, maestro Gerard Schwarz, Music Director, came out, but instead of beginning the concert he introduced composer Bright Sheng to present Just Dance, making its premiere as an independent concert piece. This was Mr. Sheng’s second score commissioned by the New York City Ballet. He developed an immediate rapport with a fascinating story about this piece and the origin of some of its components. He was one of the composers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and there was a proposed part of the opening ceremonies that would have had a replica of the Forbidden City rising from the field and, among other spectacular feats, featured Yo-Yo Ma playing on a giant bubble rising above the stadium! That plan was scrapped, but Sheng used the music composed for that as part of Just Dance. This is a substantial three movement work that was written specifically to feature the different groups of dancers. The first two movements contain a wonderfully subtle use of Chinese and Asian music combined with strong rhythmic propulsion. The final movement, "All Out," sounds like a jazz band gone mad with deliciously jagged rhythms and sounds from the percussion section that I’m not sure I had ever heard before.
Eschewing the traditional concerto-intermission-symphony concert structure (as was the original programming), the order was changed, and we went from the new Sheng to the well-worn Beethoven. His Seventh Symphony is one of the most deceptively difficult, but the power and energy emitted by this performance could have lit up this city for a week. Each of the four movements has a very different character and yet they all seem to feed off each other. The first movement is a mine field of a repeated rhythmic figure at a high rate of speed which can be the undoing of even the best orchestras. No problem here as the precision and paradoxical abandon nearly launched you out of your seat. The second movement is a powerfully emotive funeral march, surprisingly marked “Allegretto,” that was used in the funeral cortege for Leonard Bernstein through the streets of New York. Maestro Schwarz was masterful with his control of dynamics and pace as he knew when to reign in the sometimes frightening forward momentum and back off – resulting in even more fireworks. When it was all done, he appeared – as the oft-used sports cliché goes – to have left it all out on the field.
There is perhaps no classical music composition that has spawned more imitation and associations than the second piano concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff. After the dismal failure of his first symphony, compounded by a scathing rebuke of some other works by Tolstoy, the young composer/pianist was devastated, depressed and dried up of inspiration. After four months of sessions with Dr. Dahl, a noted hypnosis therapist, Rachmaninoff composed this masterpiece and his career took off.
Barry Douglas, the Irish pianist/conductor, has a resume that can be divided among ten musicians and all would still have monumental careers. He is a supremely dignified performer who lets the music speak for itself, and what we heard tonight was a language of indescribable beauty, passion and virtuosity. The sweeping grandeur and ultra-romantic melodies can become a caricature of itself, so it takes a keyboard poet and orchestra to play and develop these themes without a kitschy edge. I was fortunate to be on the keyboard side of the audience and although I can possibly attribute it to my refusal to accept that I need bifocals, I could swear that during many passages his hands were just a complete blur.
When Marilyn Monroe purred “Every time I hear it I go to pieces” in the movie The Seven Year Itch, describing her reaction to this concerto, it was not the first time that the many themes in this concerto were “borrowed” in film and alleged new songs.
Douglas, Schwarz and the Eastern Festival Orchestra more than demonstrated tonight that there is no such thing as “overplayed pieces,” but complacent and boring performances. Every moment of both Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Rach 2 was a revelation. Every musician was fully engaged, focused and playing these great works as if it were both the first – and last – time hearing it. This concert belongs in a time capsule.