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The Eastern Music Festival closed its 60th season last night on a high note, after a fulfilling concert that surely must have satisfied all musical appetites. The evening opened with the orchestral suite extracted from the 1920 ballet, Pulcinella by Igor Stravinsky, one of the earliest pieces of what is now called Stravinsky's "Neo-classical period" in which respect is paid to many of the classical norms of composition. Pulcinella is the fifth ballet of 12 the composer would compose in his lifetime. Inspired by music Stravinsky believed to have been composed by Giovanni Baptista Pergolesi, he used themes and excerpts of the music in novel ways. Maestro Gerard Schwarz led the slender ensemble (there are nine movements played by 10 wind and brass instruments plus strings) with wit and energy. The mood is boisterous and the playing was precise and intense.
Cello soloist Julian Schwarz first came to this listener's attention thirteen years ago (to the day!) when he was featured as one of the winners of the 2008 EMF Concerto Competition. Last night, at the closing concert of the 2021 Eastern Music Festival, under the impeccable direction of his father, EMF music director, Gerald Schwarz, he delivered on the promise shown at age 17 (with the first movement of the mighty Dvorak Cello Concerto). The featured work this time was the First Cello Concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich, a work in three movements, the last two linked by one of the longest cadenzas in memory (and important enough to merit mention in the playbill as a separate movement). The whole concerto starts with a four-note theme by the cello alone, similar in nature and character to the signature four-note theme Shostakovich frequently uses (D, S [E-flat], C, H [B-natural], as in String Quartet No. 8, Symphony No. 10, Concerto for Violin, et al.) only this time the notes (G, F-flat, C-flat, B-flat) are far removed from the actual key of the concerto (E-flat).
Cellist Schwarz is a force to be reckoned with – a powerful player with a big rich tone with a rapid but full vibrato and impressive intonation all the way up the fingerboard. And such beautiful pianissimo passages: one moment of wonder placed the cello in the musical stratosphere with ethereal harmonics accompanied by the celesta in a surprisingly low register.
The rhythmic intensity of the first movement yields to a sense of melancholy longing in the second movement, characteristic of much of Shostakovich's writing for strings. The cadenza is intimate Shostakovich, written in his very personal style, eschewing hackneyed idioms and conventions. When the last movement does finally arrive there is an element of grotesque in it which finally gives way to a restatement of the main theme from the first movement, which gives the listener a satisfying sense of completion. The orchestra is small for Shostakovich, winds by twos, including a contrabassoon and a piccolo, and only one brass instrument, a horn, played outstandingly by Kevin Reid.
As an encore, Schwarz paid tribute to Lynn Harrell, his mentor and a beloved friend of the Eastern Music Festival, by joining the cello section and playing Harrell's arrangement of the Sarabande from the fourth Suite for Unaccompanied Cello by J. S. Bach for cello ensemble.
After intermission, Maestro Schwarz resuscitated one of a number of short works commissioned in his honor by the Seattle Symphony. In 2010, American composer Bernard Rands re-composed a short fanfare for brass quintet he had written several decades ago, this time using the brass quintet as soloists, accompanied by the five string sections of the orchestra (1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos and double basses). The result was quite successful – rhythmically captivating with much parallel motion of the melodic lines – modern, but not difficult to understand and to enjoy.
The concert closed with a rousing performance of Felix Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony in A, Op. 90, known as the "Italian Symphony." It brought home the incredible qualities of the Eastern Festival Orchestra, composed of professional musicians from across the country who serve as faculty to over a hundred music students from around the world. The staccato tonguing of the winds, the incredibly balanced pianissimo of the strings and balance of all sections testify to over-all quality and minute attention to detail. And the leadership from the podium molds all the parts into a cohesive unity of structure.
Thank you, Maestro, for not skipping the repeat in the first movement, allowing us to become acquainted with the additional thematic material it introduces. The balance of the strings with the pair of flutes in the second movement was fantastic. The moderato of the third movement was as fast as I would like to hear it, but the tempo of the final Saltarello was hoppin'!
And so was the audience at the end – immediately on their feet, cheering as though they had won! And they had! Arrivederci, until next season!