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One of the many features of elite summer music programs/festivals is the opportunity for young, gifted musicians to rise above the already exalted level of the other students. This is usually done by concerto competitions where these players vie for the chance to play with one of the orchestras. This was the case at the Eastern Music Festival's July 9, 2016 presentation of their Eastern Festival Orchestra as Rosen-Schaffel competition winner, flutist Marco Núñez, performed Antonio Vivaldi's Flute Concerto in G minor, "La Notte."
The cliché that Vivaldi did not write 400 concertos, but the same concerto 400 times might be a somewhat lame inside musicological joke, but there is some truth to it. However, in this concerto there is a third Largo-Allegro pairing along with the usual two pairs making it slightly unusual, but that is where the uniqueness ends. Festival music director Gerard Schwarz conducted a sitting reduced string orchestra, plus harpsichord, in this typical Vivaldi work. Núñez appeared and played with complete ease and confidence with a lovely tone and facile technique that belied his age. I would not go as far as some that refer to a work like this as "Baroque Muzak" but I can't honestly say that there was anything memorable about the work itself although it was performed with the usual high skill of all EMF performances.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare the Vivaldi concerto with Antonín Dvořák's Cello Concerto, but it is unavoidable when played back-to-back. The cello does not have quite the arsenal of great available concertos as the violin and the piano, but there are enough to keep any soloist busy. Dvořák's magnificent cello concerto, completed in 1895, is universally appraised as the cello concerto and one of the greatest for any instrument.
The soloist was Julian Schwarz, someone the EMF audiences have watched over the years emerge from a very young soloist at the festival who, early on, occasionally had to fight off cruel nepotism accusations, to the headlining cellist at the EMF whose credentials are unquestioned. This concerto has something for everyone: a brilliant, challenging, and beautifully lyrical solo part, exceptionally interesting and rewarding orchestral parts (not something you necessarily find in concertos), and a seemingly bottomless cache of sublime moments that the listener never tires of.
Although labeled as in B minor and the several minute orchestral intro proceeds as such, it (the introduction) ends on a luscious, deceptive cadence that brings in the soloist with the powerful opening theme. Schwarz has the complete arsenal for this work: a big, piercing sound that penetrates through the other ninety or so players when needed, and a honey-toned soft embrace in the sensitive, lyrical sections. The second theme is one of those masterfully shaped haunting melodies that is typical of Dvořák's "American" style, and Schwarz was particularly emotive in playing this seemingly simple tune.
The elder Schwarz, obviously aware that this is more than just a soloist's showoff piece, wove the complex relationship between the orchestra and solo cellist into a beautiful tapestry of sound. This was especially evident in the stunningly wistful second movement where the quiet technical demands of the soloist are probably the most challenging of the work. The finale, beginning like an approaching march, is triumph and spectacle. At the end Dvořák uses a simple yet underused "trick" where the soloist finishes several measures before a stirring, orchestral mini-coda.
Like most eras in music history (or any history for that matter) it is hard to pinpoint an exact moment when a change occurs – notwithstanding the wisdom of Professor Peter Schickele who tells us that the "Renaissance began on January 1, 1600." However, labeling Beethoven's completion of his Symphony No. 3 in E-flat in 1804 as the start of his middle-period and a true revolution in music is both accurate and not an overstatement. While the tearing up of his original dedication to Napoleon is an interesting aside, it is the music – especially the way it was played tonight – that is everything. Add to the back story that this is around the time that Beethoven fully realized the severity of his hearing loss and its inevitable progression to total deafness that we have the confluence of despair and genius.
The opening has two loud and emphatic chords as if Beethoven is grabbing you by the collar to say "pay attention to what's about to come; music will never be the same again." As if that's not enough, the cellos then outline a C minor triad except they land on a long-held C sharp. Repeating the exposition is not an option, as if Beethoven wants to make sure that the listener does not think that what he just heard is an aural hallucination. The long opening movement goes on with techniques typical of LvB – breaking up motives into the smallest of parts and tossing them all over the orchestra, sudden changes in dynamics, strict adherence to articulation.
A profoundly moving second movement funeral march, followed by a quirky scherzo and trio leads into a theme and variations finale that, although lesser in duration, rivals the composer's great piano variations.
I have heard this "Eroica" symphony hundreds of times and played it, in the cello section, with at least four different orchestras. But, as I listened to Maestro Schwarz lead the Eastern Festival Orchestra in this performance, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time. I know that's a cliché but there's no other way to say it. Like a great painting cleaned up after centuries of dirt and grime, it all sounded new and revealing: this is what separates great conductors and orchestras from merely competent.
Another revelation to me was the string configuration and how, for the first time, at least to my ears, that really made a difference. With the first and second violin sections separated to either side of the conductor and the violas and cellos both on the inside, the string writing really came alive. It was a natural stereo effect that added a new dimension to this score that I thought I knew so well. This was a magnificent evening of superb playing of two of the greatest works in each of their genres.