Tag Archives: José-Luis Novo

EMF Finales Deliver a Double Dose of Strauss and Fun

Review: Eastern Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Head over to Greensboro for the Eastern Music Festival and you’ll find multiple orchestras and multiple concert series sprinkled across the annual five-week celebration. Peep in on the last nights of EMF and you can expect multiple symphonic finales, the Young Artists Orchestras offering their valedictories followed by the professionals of the Festival Orchestra on closing night. Of course, among the primary reasons for making the journey, both for students who populate the youth orchestras and for audiences who come to see them, are the bold programming choices by EMF music director Gerard Schwarz, who marked his 15th year with the festival in 2019.

Led by José-Luis Novo and Grant Cooper, the Young Artists performed Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé Suites, not the longest concert that I’ve heard on the bosky Guilford College campus at Dana Auditorium. Schwarz took over the Dana stage the following night last Saturday, conducting a program that was epic in length, culminating in a memorable performance of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Before reaching that summit, Schwarz premiered his own orchestration of Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz (or Adagio) and guest artist Horacio Gutiérrez played the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.

Cue up a recording of either of the Strauss tone poems presented at the EMF finales and you’ll quickly hear why it’s essential to hear them in live performance. Even with headphones, you hardly hear anything, let alone the rich low textures that Strauss swaddles us in so softly before he builds. Nor is either one of these pieces heard even infrequently in the concert hall, so the jolt of discovery doesn’t stop at the lip of the stage when a performance is offered, especially when played by an orchestra with musicians aged 13-23. Cooper and his ensemble admirably brought out all the instrumental voices and textures in the introductory section of Death and Transfiguration, where Strauss depicts his protagonist on the verge of death. The tingle of revelation onstage and in the hall was nearly palpable.

Almost two minutes passed before a faint oboe and a glimmering flute emerged over the strings with a pair of harps, just before the clarinet asserted itself. In bolder relief, the principal oboe and flute shone before we heard the concertmaster’s eloquence. At the first tumultuous life-death struggle – where I hurriedly turn the volume knob back from 2 o’clock to 10:30 on the acclaimed Karajan recording – the violins vied stirringly with the mean trombones. Through the quiescent respite granted to the dying man and into the fourth and final section where the heavens open up to him, sounds of glowing nostalgia and immanent death gave way to exquisite sunlit violins and waves of serene luminescence, the stately linearity of the winds and brass contrasting effectively with the gilded haze of the strings.

Intermission saw a mass exodus of musicians, instruments, and instrument cases as Cooper’s orchestra – likely 80 or more strong – gave way to Novo’s equally large ensemble. Some of the same thrill of discovery for the Strauss carried over to the Suite No. 1 from Daphnis and Chloé, so rarely performed live and far less captured on recordings than Suite No. 2. Where that ballet originally sets a nocturnal pastoral scene with Nymphs dancing and Daphnis competing against a rival for Chloé’s kiss, the music was as delicate and impressionistic as we expect from this composer, so the “Danse Guerrière” – the onset of pirates – was likely doubly startling for listeners who haven’t delved deeply into Ravel. Sometimes, it’s more accurate to link Ravel with Saint-Saëns than with Debussy. Suite No. 2 delivered the same kind of duality, its “Lever du jour” dappled with birdlike flutes and the concluding “Danse Générale,” heralded by harps and swirling flutes, unleashing a powerful Bacchante fury, with Novo’s orchestra undaunted by the invigorating 5/4 metre.

With the world premiere of Adagio, Schwarz was revisiting a Webern piece that he had already orchestrated in the early 1980s, some 20 years after its rediscovery. Then he had retained its original title, keeping and enlarging on the parts written for string quartet while adding a bass part. Modestly modified though it was, Schwarz’s version, released on his 1994 recording with the Seattle Symphony, was at least three minutes longer than any string quartet version that I’ve tracked down, an expansion of more than 30 percent. In a sense, that was chiefly what Schwarz was aiming for, according to the helpful notes in EMF’s program book, for the maestro felt that a full orchestral version was necessary to bring out its Mahler-esque poignancy – and to play the piece as slowly as needed for maximum impact.

The new orchestration builds handsomely and colorfully upon Schwarz’s previous enhancements, adding significant parts for wind and percussion along with notable highlights for flute, clarinet, piccolos, and timpani. No less audaciously, Schwarz modified his string writing, giving the principal violist, cellist and the concertmaster moments to shine. The result was noticeably livelier and more dramatic with a far wider dynamic range, delivering a larger dose of Mahler majesty. Even the cymbals’ clash during the final swell meshed seamlessly with the overall concept.

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My first exposure to Horacio Gutiérrez was 20 years ago, when he performed the Prokofiev No. 2 with the Charlotte Symphony under Peter McCoppin, emphatically demonstrating that his artistry and power were tough to follow. At Dana with the EMF Festival Orchestra, Gutiérrez somewhat upstaged Schwarz even before he appeared. Or at least his piano did, awaiting his arrival. Inside the auditorium’s acoustic shell, the musicians filled the stage beyond the proscenium, so bringing a piano in from the wings would have required an intermission rather than a discreet break.

Gutiérrez’ musical entrance came quickly enough in the opening Allegro non troppo, charming us in the little exchanges with the French horn before spasms of febrile keyboard eruptions summoned the full orchestra. While the acoustic shell at Dana kept the sound moving out toward us instead of partially evaporating into the wings and backstage, the effect on Brahms’s more linear sound wasn’t as flattering as it was for Strauss’s tone poem or Ravel’s impressionistic blends. Bass and treble weren’t as separated coming from the piano as I have experienced in other halls, but the lack of definition had a more telling effect on the orchestral parts. It was gratifying to hear more crispness from Gutiérrez and the ensemble as the movement climaxed.

The ensuing Allegro appassionato was more receptive to the natural pedal effect of the Dana acoustics on the piano, and Gutiérrez’ virility contrasted effectively with the Festival Orchestra’s delicacy. Against a finely becalmed backdrop, the soloist became livelier and more rhythmic, yet together orchestra and soloist crested in grandeur as the movement ended. The slow Andante movement was even more ideally suited to the hall as a skein of cellos, settling over a mist of violins, added introductory magic. Before we heard from the pianist here, violins and winds deliciously ratcheted our anticipation upwards. Gutiérrez did not disappoint, surpassing himself with his lyrical outpourings, two dreamy perorations sandwiched around a reminder of his thunder. In the concluding Allegretto grazioso, he played with a geniality that suggested all difficulties had already been overcome. Rhythmic aspects of Gutiérrez’ keyboard work were more merrily emphasized than before, with a treble that truly gleamed.

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Never having seen a live performance of Eine Alpensinfonie before, I’ll have to admit that a glance at the program booklet filled me with dread. There are no fewer than 22 parts to this mountain journey with no pauses, and apart from unmistakable signposts, how could I be sure where we were? Maybe that disorientation explains why this epic symphony is so rarely given a live hearing! Well, I needn’t have worried. Supertitles to the rescue! After the nearly self-explanatory “Night” to “Sunrise” sequence, with a starburst nearly as glorious as the famed Also Sprach Zarathustra opening, navigation was effortless across forest, stream, waterfall, and meadow as titles projected over the proscenium marked the beginning of each new stage of our Alpine tour.

Offstage horns were now contextualized as we began “The Ascent,” and we could be surer that the lonely oboe or English horn signaled our arrival at “The Alpine Pasture,” speckled soon afterwards with birdlike twitterings of a flute. Reaching the “Summit,” “Sunset,” and the final onset of “Night” were predictable glories lying ahead, but a large aluminum sheet hanging down over the percussion section upstage was a sure forecast of stormy weather. Looking at the adult musicians playing during the “Thunder and Storm” section of Alpine Symphony, I felt like they were having as much fun as the students had the night before as they revealed the mysteries of Death and Transfiguration.

I found over 80 faculty artist biographies for members of the Festival Orchestra – most of them printed in the rear of the festival’s 156-page program book and most of them without photos. So it was pretty much by accident that, thumbing through the book and surveying previous concerts, I was able to match principal percussionist John Shaw with his picture. Shaw had been the featured soloist on the previous Friday, a week before the Youth Orchestra Finale, playing Joseph Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra with Cooper and his youngsters. Now in the heat of “Thunder and Storm,” he may have been exerting himself even more strenuously, cranking a wind machine that vied in volume with the clamor of that large thundering aluminum sheet. Shaw hadn’t bothered to take off his formal white jacket to execute his mighty cranking labors, yet there was a big wide smile all across his face. He was the kid this time.

Memorable Evening at EMF Includes an Adolphe World Premiere

Review: Eastern Music Festival – Greensboro, NC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.

2016emf_0004_edited-1Like 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.

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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.

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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.