The Eastern Music Festival faculty have had a busy summer of presenting orchestral and chamber music concerts on the campus of Guilford College, which hosts the festival each summer. At 8:00 pm in Dana Auditorium on July 28, a mix of longtime and new faculty, coined the Eastern Chamber Players, presented chamber music from a wide range of genres and composers on the Faculty Chamber Series. These seasoned orchestral players took a stab at some very challenging chamber music giving the audience a chance to hear music rarely played.
The program began with a change. After a lone flutist and pianist took the stage, the principal flutist at EMF, Les Roettges, quipped that he would be performing alone after his clarinet colleague took an unfortunate fall. "What some people will do to get out of playing chamber music." Announcing the piece from the stage, he launched into Fantasy on George Bizet's Carmen arranged by François Borne. The predictable structure of the piece pervaded the entire eight minutes. The flutist played eighths, then triplets, and finally ended with the faster sixteenth notes. While I appreciated the virtuosic flute playing, some of the trills actually detracted from Bizet's melody, and I found myself struggling to figure out what part of the opera each melody came from. The pianist plunked along and did her best with a very droll piano part. The first surprise of the piece came at the very end – the performers landed on a minor second, quickly resolving to the tonic, a cute and sudden end.
An arrangement of very rarely heard Bucolics (Nos 1,2, and 3) by the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski followed. Originally written for piano in 1952, the composer himself adapted the pieces for cello and viola. Each version is a rare piece to hear at a chamber music concert, but I had never heard the arrangement for two violas. Written in a style similar to Bartók, each short piece highlights a Polish folksong. Unusual rhythms and tonalities pervade the pieces. I wish the first violist had stood facing the audience because I struggled to hear her the entire time. Perhaps the performers were trying to present a very simple, folk-like interpretation of the works, and in that they succeeded. I didn't hear a variety of colors or textures to their sounds, and I missed the deeper, more sonorous cello that could have added some contrast. The performer's sounds blended well, but almost too well, and I had a difficult time distinguishing the parts.
Alec Wilder's Six Trios ended the first half. Mr. Wilder (1907-1980) composed a large body of chamber works for a wide variety of ensembles and even wrote songs recorded by Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. His Six Trios was originally written for three tubas and adapted by the performers for flugelhorn, euphonium, and tuba. This light hearted and delightful piece highlighted the instruments so well. The flugelhorn, which sounds like a mellower trumpet, played by Chris Gekker floated above the other two instruments. Gekke's sound was at times warm and then more strident, exhibiting excellent control of his instrument. Demondrae Thurman on euphonium and Tom McCaslin on tuba blended their sounds so beautifully that I hadn't realized how luxurious low brass playing could sound in chamber music. Each short trio offered a little more insight into the versatility of Mr. Wilder. One was syncopated and rhythmic, another cute and light, one was more vocal, while another offered his ease with counterpoint. I enjoyed this arrangement played by very highly skilled players very much.
After the intermission, more string faculty presented Felix Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13. Mendelssohn composed this gem of a piece when he was only 18, and it is shocking to imagine someone so young creating a piece of music so mature. In general, I liked the player's interpretation of this work. They handled the tempos well, and didn't get stuck in the adagios like so many string quartets often do. However, despite the more flowing tempi, I would have liked to see and hear more energy from the players. I felt like they were lost a bit in their own parts both visibly and audibly. Sometimes motives didn't flow clearly from one player to the next. I could have used more color, especially in the beginning of the third movement. All iterations of the melody sounded exactly the same to me. I got a lot of energy, however, from the second violinist, Anne Donaldson. Her sound cut through every time she had a solo, and I found myself waiting until the second violinist had more to say. The individual playing as well was top notch. I was particularly impressed with a string of unison runs in the last movement, which were executed without a hitch. For such a difficult piece, learned on top of the performers already very demanding orchestral responsibilities, they delivered a very well executed quartet that incited quite a few curtain calls from the very supportive audience.
Eastern Music Festival offered concerts every evening through Sunday, August 1, when they endedd with Mahler's sensational 2nd Symphony, a listening and visual spectacle not to be missed!