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Although the end of the Eastern Music Festival is just around the corner, one of the highlights of the season always takes place during this final week: the two concerts that showcase the student concerto competition winners. Thursday night’s performance featured two who are part of the 180 young musicians who attend the five-week festival housed on the Guilford College campus. And how they played! 16-year old French-born Sophie Pariot offered a convincing reading of the first movement of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and 18-year old Taiwan-born Fang-Wei Hsu finessed her way through Liszt’s "Totentanz" (“Dance of Death”). Conductor José-Luis Novo skillfully led the Eastern Symphony Orchestra, one of the two student ensembles.
Although the Sibelius concerto was premiered in 1903, with the conductor at the podium, it did not become popular until Jascha Heifetz championed the work in the 1930s. Since then, the work has grown to be one of the favorites of the 20th century. Pariot’s performance grew in strength as the violinist immersed herself in this primarily lyrical work. This is lyricism at a distance, an internal type that sometimes becomes extroverted in virtuosic flairs, and Pariot’s technique was clearly up to the demands of the score. Her timbre was often perfectly suited to the needs of the passage, from icy chills to red-hot passion.
Liszt’s "Totentanz," completed in 1859 with a couple of later revisions, is a “symphonic piece” for piano and orchestra based on the Gregorian chant "Dies irae" (“Day of wrath”). Several other composers have made use of this tune, including Berlioz and Rachmaninoff. This composition is only one of several that shows Liszt’s fascination with death and the macabre. There are few passages that do not quote the "Dies irae" tune, which is treated to a series of variations, mostly for the piano with the orchestra treated as a second-class citizen.
"Totentanz" is the epitome of a virtuosic piece, designed to show off the technical prowess of the performer (beginning with Liszt himself) — glissandos up and down the piano, hammering, percussive melodies, Bach-like chorales that mysteriously morph into etude-like arpeggios, double-octave blazing passages — all these and more are offered in spades. Hsu tossed these fiendish passages off like water off a duck’s back. Her stamina was strong, and her energy never wavered through the course of the 15-minute workout.
The Eastern Symphony Orchestra played with precision with Maestro Novo musically and creatively leading the band through its paces. The winds were on display in the Sibelius, and the brass section especially shone in the Liszt work.
The second half of the evening featured the second student orchestra, the Guilford Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Chelsea Tipton II. On the program: Coleridge-Taylor, Russell Peck, and Tchaikovsky.
"Danse nègre," the fourth movement of African Suite, is a pleasing and sturdy composition, strongly played by the GSO. Coleridge-Taylor was an African-Brit who hoped to bring African music into the mainstream of classical music, much as Brahms had done with Hungarian music, although this 7-minute piece sounds as much American as it does African.
The inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien was the composer’s vacation in Italy in 1880 and includes several musical ideas that he heard while there. For example, the opening fanfare, powerfully played by the GSO brass, was based on the bugle call he heard near his summer home. So too are snatches of gondolier ballads and Neapolitan street songs incorporated into the fabric of the composition. This is an altogether delightful work, skillfully played, and it provided a brilliant ending to the concert.
The heart of the second half, however, was found in Russell Peck’s moving "Peace" Overture, a musical portrait of the late Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat. Indeed, the entire evening’s music making was given in memory of Peck, who died earlier this year. Greensboro was lucky to have heard the overture twice this year: the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Dmitry Sitkovetsky, performed the work in honor of Peck during their season. And the work certainly deserves repeated hearings. According to Bill Trotter’s program notes, this particular composition by Peck has been performed nearly 1000 times the world over. It’s easy to see why the work is so engaging for both musicians and audience members.
"Peace" Overture is both lyric and dramatic, but ultimately tragic, like Sadat’s life. It contains moments of unbridled excitement and jazzy joy, as well as darker, deep musings. Holding the whole 11 minutes together is a tune that sounds a bit like the African-American spiritual “Motherless Child,” although Peck claimed he was not aware of the connection until a listener pointed it out to him. Conductor Tipton led the young musicians through the score with dignity and direction. Russell Peck would have been proud.