Euphoniums, Tubas And Flutes, Oh My How This Music Fest Is Growing

A percussion concert at the Eastern Music Festival (Photo by Lana Shkadova)

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Under the artistic leadership of music director and conductor Gerard Schwarz, the Eastern Music Festival has evolved from an orchestral and chamber music program to its current inclusion of wide-ranging educational experiences for young musicians. This year marked the festival’s 62nd season.

In a recent interview, Schwarz noted that through expansion over the last several decades, the festival now includes a five-week piano program (ages 14 to 23), a pre-professional conducting institute (for ages 18 and older), orchestral fellowships for strings, trombone, bass, clarinet, and contrabassoon (ages 23 to 33), a two-week classical guitar program, and a two-week Euphonium-Tuba Institute.

The final concert of the festival’s 2023 season took place July 29 in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus. The five-week festival boasted more than 60 events, including chamber performances, piano recitals, orchestral concerts, and master classes.

The festival (initially called the Guilford Musical Arts Center) was founded in 1962 by Sheldon Morgenstern (1938-2007), who served as music director and primary conductor from 1961-1997. The first camp included 72 students and 14 professional faculty members; since those initial years, the festival has grown to more than 280 students and more than 65 faculty members.

Schwarz joined the festival in 2005, first as music advisor, then principal conductor, before becoming music director. Many of the professional faculty members predate his leadership; they come back year after year for the most part because of the intense musical experiences. Schwarz’s conducting duties are shared by two resident conductors, Grant Cooper (who has been with the festival since 2013) and José-Luis Novo (since 1999). The primary task of these two musicians is to rehearse and conduct the two student orchestras.

Conductor Gerard Schwarz and violinist Gil Shaham in rehearsal

Festival performances range from faculty chamber recitals and student orchestra concerts to professional orchestral programs. Pre-concert talks are given by local musicians, conductor Peter Perret, or musicologist Greg Carroll. Starting the third week of the festival, students perform piano and chamber music recitals. These Young Artist programs are free of charge to the public.

Guitarist Jason Vieaux played a recital at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro. (Photo by Lana Shkadova)

At the end of the Euphonium-Tuba Institute, faculty members Demondrae Thurman and Aaron Tindall were joined in a concert by the North Carolina Brass Band, led by Brian Meixner. The classical guitar program brought Jason Vieaux to the festival to teach and play. That performance (held in Temple Emanuel in Greensboro) featured not only Vieaux, but also Brazilian guitarist Badi Assad and Guilford College professor Kami Rowan, whose West Virginia Suite she performed solo.

The festival has also partnered with the Greensboro Opera for an evening of songs under the direction of David Holley, a University of North Carolina Greensboro professor. This year, the program “Yours Is My Heart Alone” featured music from light opera and musical theater. The performers included professional singers as well as former students from UNCG. This performance, too, was held in Temple Emanuel.

Faculty member Demondrae Thurman performed on euphonium.

“Percussion Explorations” featured an ensemble made up of festival faculty and one staffer performing only works by living composers. A half-dozen chamber-music concerts (entitled “Encircling the City”) take place around the Greensboro area in public library branches throughout the festival. A concert prelude, which employs different student brass ensembles, welcomes the audience on the Dana lawn before the Saturday night Eastern Festival Orchestra concert.

Nine years ago, Schwarz created the EMF Conducting Institute. “Our graduates are conducting all over the country with great success,” he said. The nine conducting scholars’ work was showcased in an “Overtures” concert, with each leading the Eastern Festival Orchestra in a single-movement work.

A list of guest artists who have played and taught in the festival’s history is impressive, among them violinists Midori, Sarah Chang, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and Josef Gingold; cellists Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Harrell, and Leonard Rose; percussionist Evelyn Glennie, flutist James Galway, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (a festival alum), and pianist André Watts.

Guest artists who performed this year with the Eastern Festival Orchestra included pianist William Wolfram (Liszt Concerto No. 2), violinist Gil Shaham (Brahms concerto), pianist Drew Petersen (Ravel concerto), violinist Jeff Multer and cellist Julian Schwarz (Paul Frucht’s Finding Religion, a world premiere), and pianist Awadagin Pratt (Jessie Montgomery’s 2022 Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra and Bach Piano Concerto in A, BWV 1055). Vieaux played in the chamber series, joining concertmaster Multer for the virtuosic three-movement Twist for violin and guitar by Vivian Fung. The guitarist also gave a sterling reading of Agustin Barrios Mangoré’s Vals, Op. 8, No. 4 for solo guitar.

A concert prelude on Dana Lawn at Guilford College (Photo by Lynn Donovan)

Other luminaries this year included pianist Santiago Rodriguez, who played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 under Schwarz. Rodriguez also took part in a chamber-music recital, taught a masterclass, and gave an all-Rachmaninoff solo recital featuring the Second Piano Sonata as well as selections from Études-Tableaux, Préludes, and Moments musicaux.

An attractive 128-page program book details all the concerts and locales as well as provides information about the faculty, students, and guest artists. Additionally, almost all the pieces performed are discussed in the program notes that include both historical and formal information written by Cat Keen Hock.

Almost all concerts take place in the 1,000-seat Dana Auditorium on the Guilford campus. “We play in a wonderful concert hall, very good acoustics,” Schwarz said. “We don’t have to deal with tents and bugs and heat and rain and bad acoustics. We’re unique in that we have three orchestras, and we basically all live together at Guilford College, so that we’re a community that’s together. And we do it in one of the most beautiful places in the country.”

The Eastern Festival Orchestra played Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ with percussionists Matt Decker and John Shaw at the front of the stage. (Photo by Lana Shkadova)

Asked about the highs of this season, Schwarz pointed to the “Mighty Fives” concert, which paired Beethoven’s Fifth with Mahler’s Fifth. And I couldn’t agree more. From the opening measures, it was obvious this was a commanding performance that would be remembered by the audience for a long time. The late-Romantic literature is what the Eastern Festival Orchestra really sinks its teeth into, and the lengthy Mahler was held together with intelligence and passion.

I was able to attend a number of the chamber-music recitals, student and faculty orchestral concerts, as well as master classes. The musical offerings are wide-ranging. For example, Mozart’s Quintet for Woodwinds and Piano in E-flat major, K. 452, was coupled with Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano and Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major. Another chamber program included Dvořák’s Miniatures for Two Violins and Viola with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3, which sandwiched the Fung and Barrios compositions mentioned earlier.

The Young Artist Orchestras offered Prokofiev (Romeo and Juliet) coupled with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6, Janáček’s Sinfonietta, John Williams’ Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra (featuring Gabriel Beavers as soloist; he also gave a masterclass and played in an all-Mozart program), Shostakovich Ninth, Anna Clyne’s 2019 Sound and Fury, Respighi’s Feste Romane, Ravel’s suites No. 1 and 2 from Daphnis et Chloé, and Bartók’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin.

Each summer’s final week presents the Young Artists Concerto Competition Winners concert, always a delight to hear. This year the seven winners (age 19-21) included students playing works by Goossens for oboe, Walton for viola, Grøndahl for trombone, Lalo for violin, Nielsen for flute, Bruch for violin, and Martinů for oboe. The students’ colleagues backed them in two different Young Artists Orchestras, conducted by Novo and Cooper.

Violinist Gil Shaham, right, held a master class. (Photo by Lynn Donovan)

The Eastern Festival Orchestra’s repertoire was similarly varied: from Liszt to Rimsky-Korsakov through Copland, Brahms, Vivaldi, and Hindemith, Wagner coupled with Paul Frucht, and the brilliant finale: Debussy’s La mer, Montgomery’s Rounds, Bach’s Piano Concerto, Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

“Every year we try to be better than the year before,” said Schwarz. “What’s been very exciting this year is the great audiences we’ve had — a 10 percent increase in audience size. We are flourishing, and that makes me very happy. I’m very proud of the impact that I’ve had, but I’m really honored that I’ve been allowed to do what I do here and given the support that I’ve been given.

“The area for us to grow is supporting our musicians. They’re fantastic. We need to do more for them financially. Hopefully we’re at the point that we can support the musicians who have done so much to make this place special. If I had one wish, that’s the wish.”