By Roy C. Dicks
GREENSBORO, N,C. – The Eastern Music Festival, celebrating its 53rd summer season on the quiet, leafy Guilford College campus, is the beneficiary of a generous commissioning project from local supporter Bonnie McElveen-Hunter. Begun last year, the project brings a new American work to the festival for ten consecutive seasons. This year’s commission, premiered on July 19 in Dana Auditorium, is John Corigliano’s Lullaby, a reworking for violin soloist and orchestra of a 2010 piece for violin and piano.
The original work was written for noted violinist Anne Akiko Meyers (at right) to celebrate the birth of her daughter. The five-minute composition is spare, elegant, and sweetly calming. Composed in full neo-Romantic style, the work has a lovely, ethereal quality, the violin line expanding upon the six-note beginning phrase that, according the program notes, mimics the words, “Go to sleep, Natalie.”
Soloist Jeffrey Multer, artistic director of the festival’s chamber music concerts, performed the new commission. He put heartfelt emotion into the hushed, slightly melancholic melody, employing warmly rich lower tones and delicate filigree in the upper reaches. He didn’t draw attention to his performance, allowing the wafting lullaby to float on the gently supportive orchestration, which had just enough quiet brass and woodwinds laced among the shimmering strings. Gerard Schwarz, the festival’s music director since 2007, led the Festival Orchestra with a sensitive understanding of the work’s simplicity. Corigliano came forward from the audience to accept the prolonged, enthusiastic applause at the work’s conclusion.
This orchestrated version has an exquisite fragility that the intimate but more tangible violin-piano original doesn’t. But the new work’s brevity for a concert program seems to beg for more. One could easily imagine it as a second movement in another Corigliano violin concerto.
If there were any sleepyheads in the audience at that point, they were jolted awake with the other work on the first half. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker bounced out in an emerald-green shirt and white dinner jacket (complementing those of the male orchestra members and maestro Schwarz), his intense smile and energized stance presaging the wild ride to come with Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Anyone feeling reluctant to hear another performance of this popular work might have been relieved of that notion within the first few measures. The palpable electricity and visceral excitement from soloist, conductor, and orchestra swept the listener along in an unrelenting grip.
Parker’s ultra-crisp execution and sizzling tempos were matched by Schwarz at every point, both often sporting involuntary grins as they relished particularly dazzling passages. Schwarz emphasized the score’s wonderfully exotic and mysterious elements, while Parker became nearly demonic in his fevered conquest of the intricate runs and massive chords. That precision likely was enhanced by the auditorium’s bright acoustics and the close proximity of the stage to its 1,000 seats.
Some might complain that the performance was more brusque than necessary, and that the piano was too prominent in several sections. No one in the audience seemed to care; the roar after the work’s playfully abrupt finish continued undiminished through a handful of curtain calls. The applause subsided only when Schwarz indicated the piano seat to Parker, and Parker waved down the din.
Still beaming and bouncy after his workout, Parker amused with his encore announcement, claiming that he was really itching to play a piece for four hands. In mock-serious tone, he called out, “Is there a pianist in the house?” and suddenly there was one – William Wolfram, a festival faculty member and performer this season. After some comic settling of who would take which part, Wolfram and Parker played Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance, Op. 46, No. 8, in G minor. It was a raucous turn, more about camaraderie than interpretation, but it was great fun, and again there were numerous returns to center stage for the audience’s equally raucous approval.
The program’s second half offered Stravinsky’s Petrouchka in the original 1911 scoring. Of Stravinsky’s three early, groundbreaking ballets, Petrouchka appears to me the least satisfactory to hear in the concert hall. In the theater as a ballet, with its carnival crowds, sideshow performers, and puppets come to life, the piece demonstrates how perfectly it illuminates each minute section of the story. But when performed in a concert, its ever-changing shifts of tempo, melody and rhythm, as well as its many intensely percussive passages, make the score less easy to engage.
Schwarz obviously knew the score well, giving precise cues and astutely regulating the sudden swings in dynamics and moods. But the performance appeared to be mostly about getting through the admittedly daunting challenges, leaving little room for expansive characterization or a connective overview. Still, the performance allowed listeners to focus on Stravinsky’s many unusual instrumental effects, as various musicians offered diverting cameos.
Roy C. Dicks has been performing arts correspondent for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer since 1997.