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Imagine a theatrical production of Hamlet with all of the roles maturely and effectively played by actors barely into their teens, or the entire Nutcracker ballet danced by those who still cannot get a license to drive. These scenarios seem unlikely and even slightly absurd, yet there are orchestras consisting entirely of young musicians who play compositions that at one time were considered "unplayable" by seasoned professionals. The Eastern Music Festival presented their 100%-student Festival Orchestra in a wonderfully programmed concert that had one of Mozart's best-known and most loved concertos sandwiched between two contrasting gems of the French orchestral repertoire. Scott Sandmeier, Resident Conductor of the Festival Orchestra since 1998, had the task of bringing together a talented group of teenage musicians – students who two weeks before were total strangers – and forming an accomplished orchestra to play a program that would be a challenge for even the best players in the world. For the most part, the mission was very much accomplished; the minor mishaps I attribute more to the conductor than the musicians.
The evening began with "Nuages" ("Clouds") and "Fêtes" ("Festivals"), two of the three Nocturnes by Debussy. (The third – "Sirenes" – was most likely omitted because of the need for a women's chorus.) The dreamy, floating fluidity of these musical impressions belie the high levels of control and attention to detail that are imperative for these works. Amateurish playing is exposed faster than you can say sacre bleu! "Clouds" is a tone painting of exceptional transparency and an ethereal quality that makes you want to float on the music. The English horn soloist had a slightly thin, immature tone that missed the mark of that fat "glassy" sound that distinguishes it from the oboe. Where "Nuages" could have easily been written without bar lines, "Fêtes" (as its name suggests) is a rhythmically vibrant display of fireworks. These miniatures in tone color, while far from the bombast of the subsequent works on the program, made an impressive display of the talent and sensitivity of the young musicians.
Concertos for more than one instrument pose unique problems of balance and – since the time of their premieres – present challenges for fragile egos. Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola and Bach's Concerto for Two Violins are perhaps the most satisfying compositions in this genre for listeners and players. Written in the relatively unfriendly key (for strings) of E-flat, Mozart has the violist tune his entire instrument up a half-step so he is essentially playing in D. Mozart was not pandering to violists complaining about the key but rather giving the dark viola a much brighter, brilliant sound so it is better able to compete with its higher-pitched violin cousin. The soloists were violinist Jeffrey Multer and violist Roberto Díaz, the newly appointed President and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music. Despite some excellent solo playing, rhythmic instability permeated much of the concerto. Díaz seemed to enjoy accelerating through most of his exposed passages while Sandmeier attempted to either catch up or slow down again once he was done. The phrasing seemed to suffer also as cadences raced by like speeding trains and all sense of rubato was completely lost. This was especially obvious in the slow movement; its long melodic arches demanded a reading beyond the printed page. One of the marks of a true masterpiece is that it's very hard to destroy and even a straight-ahead reading like this one retained the magnificence of Mozart's creation.
More than 170 years after its premiere, the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz is still regarded as the French symphony and remains a favorite of both listeners and orchestral musicians. Its challenges for conductors and players are legendary, and there was a definite disconnect between the world-class level of sounds I was hearing and the image of children on stage re-creating this marvelous work. That is not to say that this was a perfect performance by any means. Some fatigue and loss of concentration became apparent as the symphony proceeded, there were several early entrances from the strings, and some players were left behind in accelerandos. I found Sandmeier's interpretation to be significantly void of attention to phrasing details that would have added more spice to the mix. This was especially apparent in the lovely, diabolical waltz in the second movement; its melodic ascent practically screams for a respite as it climbs to the top note. The individual wind players were confident and expressive in their solos, but the section as a whole seemed to be overpowered, even when they needed to be at the front of the action. As good and musically mature beyond their years as the strings and winds were, it was the brass section that really stood out – especially in the "March to the Scaffold" and "Dream of a Witch's Sabbath." Pinpoint attacks, dead-on intonation, and organ-like purity of sound made comparisons with great sections, like those of the Chicago Symphony, completely justified.
Considering that the festival only began on June 24 and many of these same players had taken part in an equally rigorous program just the night before that included The Rite of Spring, this concert of Debussy, Mozart, and Berlioz was quite a musical feat.