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The Eastern Philharmonic is the Eastern Music Festival's faculty orchestra, a summer ensemble considered by many to be the best large symphonic organization that performs regularly in the Tar Heel state. It has a substantial and excellent string section, resulting in better balance than is often the case elsewhere, there's strength in all the other sections, and the Festival engages a variety of solo artists and stick-wavers for its frequent concerts, so the instrumentalists tend not to get stale or bored. Most of the players also teach, and the EMF draws to its educational programs some of the music world's most promising players, so there's the added stimulation of working with bright-eyed youngsters — and the concurrent challenge to make every faculty performance memorable, lest the kids show up the instructors! And unlike at least one state-supported orchestra, the ranks of this one are integrated. Toss it all together, mix gently, and — voilà! — you have the makings of a series of spectacular evenings in Guilford College's Dana Auditorium, one of which, assuredly, was July 7, when JoAnn Falletta was the guest conductor and Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie was the soloist in Joseph Schwantner's Concerto (premiered 1996), preceded by Piazzolla's "Tangazo" and capped by Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, with Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer doing the solo violin honors.
By any standard, Glennie is one of the great solo artists of our time. She's done for percussion what Segovia did for the guitar and what Casals and then Rostropovich did for the cello, in the process eliciting numerous new works for the many, many instruments, tuned and untuned, that she plays. But it's likely that her most lasting impact will come from her breaking down of barriers to personal and artistic accomplishment, in which regard she is, in many respects, the embodiment of what Itzhak Perlman was to his generation and Marian Anderson was to hers. (For details, from the artist's own website, click here.)
As it happens, Schwantner's Concerto (which involves around 20 struck, bowed, or immersed instruments, some in pairs, arrayed behind and in front of the orchestra) was not written for her, but she's made it her own, and it is apparently one of her favorite "touring" pieces. I am not convinced that, as an introduction to her art, it's the best work to see and hear her play first — given a choice, I think I'd opt for Christopher Rouse's quasi-Wagnerian concerto called "Der Gerettete Alberich," even though it's far more derivative. (Schwantner's score is derivative, too, with a pronounced debt to Holst, but overall it has more original themes.) In any event, those experiencing Glennie for the first time might do well to do so in person, for her art is at once aural and visual, and seeing her play — always barefoot, in case you didn't notice — is part of the amazing overall experience that is a Glennie concert.
Because Falletta was so completely in tune with her soloist, she helped make this particular performance the best and most engaging this listener has yet experienced. (We've also heard Glennie play it in Washington and Raleigh.) For one thing, the work tends to grow on one, as is often the case with "classical" music and especially with "new" music. The concerto, part of which is a memorial and all of which was meant to celebrate the NY Philharmonic's 150th anniversary, emerged on this occasion with great clarity and precision, with the orchestra registering solidly without ever intruding, even during the percussionist's most restrained moments (of which there are — perhaps surprisingly — a great many). The slow second movement, played with Glennie at the front of the stage, seemed often other-worldly, so serene and heart-felt it was. The transition between it and the finale (performed, like the first movement, from the rear platform) was electrifying. And Glennie's big cadenza, a truly breathtaking tour de force at the end of the work, has never before come across as such an astonishing display of inspired virtuosity. (It may be worth mentioning that the percussion demands of this work extend well beyond the soloist, and the players of the Eastern Philharmonic, like Glennie, distinguished themselves throughout.) The audience erupted with applause and cheers, leaping to its collective feet, recalling the artists numerous times — but without snaring an encore.
The concert began with Piazzolla's orchestral suite of traditional tangos. Falletta led a wonderfully inflected and incisive performance that captured the shifting moods admirably. This is dark music, frequently overcast with sadness, in which even the faster, happier sections are tinged with longing for better times and perhaps different places.
The first time we heard Falletta conduct — fifteen years ago, in Long Beach, California — she led a memorable performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (prefaced by an even more memorable in-the-hall lecture on the Hartmann paintings that inspired it). As a result, it gave us special pleasure when she ended her Greensboro concert with another great Russian work, Rimsky-Korsakov's brilliant Scheherazade. It was once considered a great orchestral showpiece, ideal for demonstrating the skill of the performing ensemble (and/or the talents of whatever recording engineer produced the Lp!).
Given the endless war in which we remain embroiled, it is surprising that Homeland Security hasn't attempted to ban performances of this "Arabian Nights" score, the last movement of which is titled "The Festival at Bagdad." Perhaps this would presume levels of cultural awareness and sophistication that are manifestly absent among the incumbent Washington crowd.... In any event, it was good to hear Scheherazade again, and it certainly let the Eastern Philharmonic's artists shine in Dana. Early on, Multer had some minor tone issues that were then largely forgotten in the passionate sweep of the music, and his string, wind, horn, and brass colleagues showered themselves with glory. Falletta led with keen attention to detail but without ever over-conducting — she cued the solos but generally let them unfold naturally, trusting the players to interpret them within the overall framework she'd helped establish. It was quite a performance that capped one of the most memorable concerts of the entire 2006-7 season, for sure.
The EMF continues through July 28. For details, click here.
P.S. Glennie's recording of the Schwantner, with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin, is on BMG 09026-68692-2. Her recording of the Rouse concerto, with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam, is on Ondine ODE 1016-2.