Review: Eastern Music Festival – Greensboro, NC
By Perry Tannenbaum
If you haven’t heard about her before, expect to hear more about Julia Adolphe soon. The 27-year-old composer is the 2016 winner of the Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award, and her Viola Concerto was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for Cynthia Phelps, their principal violist. Come November, when Jaap van Zweden will lead his first concert at David Geffen Hall since becoming the music director designate for the 2017-18 season, the Adolphe concerto will gets its premiere performance with the NY Phil.
But Phelps has already played the world premiere performance – in Greensboro, NC, on the Guilford College Campus at the 2016 Eastern Music Festival. Van Zweden plans to surround his premiere with works by Wagner and Tchaikovsky. With Gerard Schwarz conducting the Eastern Festival Orchestra, the new Adolphe Violin Concerto fit very well into a program that included an adventurous 20th century sampler: Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta, and Joaquin Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre, featuring a second guest soloist, guitarist Jason Vieaux.
Three interacting orchestras keep EMF humming, presenting 45 concerts over the space of 34 days, idle only on July 4, presumably in deference to the holiday and the evening’s fireworks. Two of the ensembles are Young Artists Orchestras made up of promising student musicians, aged 14-23, who perform four programs apiece with resident conductors Grant Cooper and José-Luis Novo.
Like the students, the professional 64-member Eastern Festival Orchestra hails from around the country, mostly on furlough from symphony and university posts during the regular season. They double as the students’ mentors, for the Young Orchestras not only rehearse six times a week on a professional regimen, they also get one-on-one individual instruction from a faculty member every week, 3-4 chamber music rehearsals each week, and one sectional meet-up.
I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone better equipped to pilot EMF’s mission than its music director Schwarz. Before joining EMF in 2005, Schwarz had previously built the Seattle Symphony into a powerhouse, launched scores of new American orchestral compositions, many preserved in unsurpassed recordings.
Only a fraction of the daily campus bustle is evident when you attend an evening concert at Dana Auditorium. As you walk from the nearby parking lot, music wafts toward you from a practice room, and as you reach the top stairs of the Dana’s pillared entrance, a brass quintet of students greets you.
The white acoustic shell at Dana was as ugly as I had remembered from the last time I visited EMF during its 50th anniversary in 2011 – or perhaps the better word is incongruous, for the white shell is a like an interior of 2001: A Space Odyssey plopped down into the royal palace of The Lion in Winter. Mitigating the stark contrast, projections appear on the back wall, promoting future events and blazoning sponsor logos.
When Schwarz and the Eastern Festival Orchestra struck up the Alborada del gracioso, the value of the acoustic shell instantly manifested itself. Pizzicatos maintained their crispness at the start, and the mellow sound of the single oboe didn’t struggle to reach me in Row L. The first big orchestral sforzando leaped from the stage with a rousing wallop, so the soft interlude that followed had a luxuriant repose. I was barely satisfied by the bassoon, the clarinets, and the muted trumpets setting up the closing, but the onset of percussion and brass at the end was very convincing in the final tutti, reminding me of the concluding roar of Ravel’s Bolero.
Adolphe’s Viola Concerto will undoubtedly draw better notations when it arrives at Lincoln Center, for there were no markings in the EMF program book to confirm that the piece is in three movements, and the program notes were merely a condensed version of the Adolphe bio that preceded it. Unearth, Release was already given at the NYPhil.org website as the work’s title when I looked in a week after the performance, but apparently the composer hadn’t divulged that info before the EMF program book – 124 glossy pages –had gone to press.
If you heard Adolphe’s Dark Sand, Sifting Light at the NY Phil Biennial 2014 – or on the recording you can download from the orchestra or stream on Spotify – then you’ve heard the textures and the moods Adolphe likes to work with. The swirling eeriness at the start of the Viola Concerto isn’t as soft and subdued as Dark Sand, and Phelps’ first two entrances plunged the piece into darkness, urgency, and anguish much sooner. Both the orchestra and concertmaster Jeffrey Multer had answers for Phelps after her agitated cadenza. Cellos dominated the orchestral palette until drums, cymbals, violins, and brass swelled into a majestic cacophony, dissolving into a calm dominated by the high woodwinds. A tinkling piano under a harmonics-infused outburst from Phelps closed the movement after a volley of timpani.
In contrast to the dense and spooky outer movements, the second movement was less brooding, more scherzo-like, with a bright flute, jaunty brass, woodblocks, and thin harp passages leading up to a flurry of trumpets. The concluding movement started with sweet sounds of the second violins over eerie flutes. Multer had a chance to shine on some harmonics-laced passages before soft trumpets signaled more bravura from Phelps. There was more delicacy here as bass clarinet, chimes, and oboe glistened in the texture before the final fadeout of the viola.
Adolphe’s concluding “release” was more of a weary escape than a celebratory triumph, yet it came in the wake of substantial struggle and suffering, so I could detect a glimmer of sublimity in the outcome. Van Zweden will need to be at the top of his game to equal this performance, and I suspect that both he and Schwarz will want to record the piece.
The Festival Orchestra thinned out noticeably during intermission, yet I still worried how well Vieaux would be heard over the ensemble. Fantasia para un Gentilhombre generally plays second fiddle to Rodrigo’s famed Aranjuez on recordings that anthologize the composer or the guitar. Although the piece is familiar, I’d never heard it in live concert before.
For the most part, Rodrigo deftly avoids clashes between the soloist and the orchestra. When the orchestra swells, the guitar part usually diminishes to rhythmic strums or simple arpeggios, and when the soloist takes the spotlight, the orchestra is often hushed.
When that didn’t happen, Schwarz was discreet without being self-effacing. The effect was very natural in the opening “Villano y Ricarcare” as warm strings and softly strident winds preceded Vieaux’s entry. As the winds began chirping more assertively, Vieaux took to strumming, his muted presence still counting underneath in accompaniment until he emerged gracefully at the close.
There was a festive feeling from both the soloist and the orchestra throughout – and a couple of noticeable affinities with the more often programmed Concierto de Aranjuez. Very briefly in the penultimate “Dance of the Axes,” there was some interplay between Vieaux and the oboe that echoed the Adagio in Aranjuez, and the final “Canario” evoking the Canary Islands, had a frolicksome quality akin to Allegro gentile that closes Aranjuez, dancing a little livelier. Vieaux almost sounded like he was playing electric bass just before some nice bits of trumpet introduced his final cadenza.
Over the years, I’ve seen more of Janáček in operatic productions than I have in concert halls, so it was a treat to find his Sinfonietta anchoring this evening of enterprising choices. Inspired by the sounds of a brass band heard in Brno after Czechoslovakia declared its independence on October 28, 1918, the five-movement piece is astonishing, teeming with trumpets and fanfares. Schwarz obviously reveled in its colors and its American-like brashness, so plenty of intricate variety emerged amid the military, wartime thrust.
Plenty of orchestra members returned to the stage from their Rodrigo exile. There were rich sounds from the French horns over a snare drum complementing the brass in the opening “Fanfare,” before Janáček evokes various parts of Brno in subsequent movements. Activity from the flute, piccolo, and clarinet swirled around “The Castle,” and “The Queen’s Monastery” actually sounded quiet and monastic with chaste violins before turning brassy and scherzo-like.
Violins cast a tone of anxiety over the quieted trumpets’ dance on “The Street Leading to the Castle,” and the “Town Hall” was steeped in tragic sorrow when we arrived. Timpani and pulsating brass weren’t sculpted to simulate joy and jubilation as I might have wished, settling into a more bellicose battlefield tattoo, but I was pleased – and consoled – when Schwarz and the Festival orchestra captured the majesty and grandeur of the ending.