Modern Repertoire Puts Bracing Edge On NC Fest Event

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Ignat Solzhenitsyn performed Shostakovich Concerto in C Minor with trumpet Chris Gekker with the EMF conducted by Gerard Schwarz  (Jay  L. Clendenin)
Highlight: Ignat Solzhenitsyn in Shostakovich Concerto in C Minor with trumpet Chris Gekker at EMF (Jay L. Clendenin)
By John W. Lambert
Eastern Music Festival, North Carolina
Eastern Music Festival, North Carolina

North Carolina is known for its outdoor dramas. Outdoor concerts, too. But these have their ups and downs, particularly in periods of heavy rain or oppressive heat and humidity. So it’s a good thing that there are lots of things to see and hear in NC this summer that offer air-conditioned comfort for audiences and artists alike. These include the wonderful chamber music festival that, through Aug. 11, enriches the Highlands and Cashiers region; the Appalachian Summer Festival, in Boone through Aug. 1; the chamber music festival bearing Swannanoa‘s name (with concerts also in Charlotte and Waynesville), through July 23; and of course the centrally located gem that is Greensboro’s Eastern Music Festival, with worthwhile things to do every day through July 27.

There’s an added bonus at the EMF: For as long as there’s been an EMF, one of the least well-kept secrets in the Old North State is that the faculty orchestra that assembles there every summer is the finest orchestra that routinely plays within our borders. These folks play and teach. All their educational work is confined to Greensboro. They draw decent and often substantial crowds. The orchestra is large enough – with enough strings, in particular – to merit being called a real symphonic ensemble. And the whole enterprise is headed by an American conductor with distinguished artistic and educational credentials. (For a history of the EMF, click here.) What a boon to travel and tourism of the cultural kind, and what a great opportunity for music lovers throughout the southeast!

Gerard Schwarz, EMF music director
Gerard Schwarz, EMF music director

The concert in Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium, on July 6, offered the kind of program that no other orchestra in our state would have dared present on a regular subscription night. The evening involved three soloists in two important 20th-century works, given back-to-back in the first half, followed by a new piece that packed awesome power and emotional impact, all capped by an almost-20th-century work that is widely known as one of the greatest orchestral showpieces. The concert was part of the Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Festival Orchestra Series.

Trumpet Chris Gekker (Peter Van de Water)
Chris Gekker (Peter Van de Water)

The guest artists included pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the son of the famed Russian dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who has become well known here in NC for his work as conductor, orchestral soloist, recitalist and chamber musician. He played Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1 in C minor, for piano, trumpet, and strings (1933), in which his equally stellar partner was trumpeter Chris Gekker.

The accompanying strings were members of the Festival Orchestra, and on the podium was its music director, Gerard Schwarz, who knows a thing or two about the trumpet, having served as co-principal of the New York Philharmonic till the mid-’70s while concurrently launching his career as a conductor.

Greg Banaszak, saxophone

The other guest was Greg Banaszak, whose playing – in Alan Hovhaness’ Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings (1980) – lived up to all his advance billing. It was an effective concert opener in which the solo instrument contrasted and engaged attractively with a string section of basically chamber-orchestra size, positioned for optimal acoustic differentiation: violins divided, left and right, the cellos and basses behind the first violins, and the violas behind the seconds – an arrangement that was retained for the entire program. This was the seating used by Toscanini at the NBC Symphony. It’s almost never used nowadays, a mystery since it opens up the cellos and basses to the hall and facilitates hearing the violins when their parts are divided.

The concerto is a worthwhile piece with a decidedly old-fashioned air about it, more than a little suggesting a suite of old English dances, enriched by several fugues, and only ever so slightly jazzy. The Armenian-American composer gets too little respect and too few performances. This one was most welcome.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn (Kate Swan & Jason Beaupre, CAMI)

Then came the Shostakovich. Pianist Solzhenitsyn is one of the finest artists of his generation, one who can play almost everything with equal conviction and success, but with that name – well, it’s probably understandable that the principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony is closely associated with Russian music. This concerto demonstrates that the composer’s manic-depressive nature (or paranoid-schizophrenic, or bi-polar – call it what you will) manifested itself early in his life. There are few concerted works that turn so rapidly as this one from melancholy to frenetic, from lyrical to vehemently harsh. Under Schwarz’s watchful eye, and with trumpeter Gekker and the pianist frequently squaring off against one another – and with Solzhenitsyn’s hair flying around more than we’ve ever previously seen – this was an edge-of-your-seat performance like few others in a lifetime of concert-going, and like no other in recent memory hereabouts. Along with the players, the audience members, too, needed an intermission when it was over.

Robert Beaser, composer
Composer Robert Beaser

Robert Beaser’s six-minute “Ground O” (that’s the letter, not the number, the program notes tell us) has had a remarkable evolution, starting as a wordless song a month after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 but a decade later being recast as a valedictory piece for Schwarz, upon the occasion of his departure as music director in Seattle and premiered there on Feb. 11, 2011. It’s a strong and powerful work with a staggeringly wide dynamic range that made a big impression on the occasion of what must have been its NC premiere.

Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” Op. 36 (1898-99) followed. There are few more effective orchestral showpieces and – truth to tell – few more effective English compositions since the days of Handel and Purcell. The enigma has never been fully explained to any scholar’s complete satisfaction; here’s a discussion of the work’s portraits – 14 people and a dog. It’s helpful to have a roadmap, such as the one provided in the program. (It’s still more helpful if the sections are delineated – as they sometimes are – with projections. No matter that didn’t happen this time.) The playing was at such an exalted level that most listeners were surely overwhelmed by the splendor of the music and its radiant realization by these master artists. The strings dug in at every opportune moment, clearly reveling in the intensity and incisiveness they produced. The winds and brass were expertly managed and balanced throughout. We’ve come to associate the “Nimrod” Variation with memorial occasions, almost as much as Barber’s Adagio, but hearing that section in the context of the entire work significantly enhances its powers. This performance brought all of the enigmatic bits to nearly perfect clarity. At the end, the crowd was reluctant to let Schwarz and his players go.

John W. Lambert is the former executive editor of Classical Voice North Carolina, where a somewhat different version of this review originally appeared.  It is reprinted here with permission of the author.