Gerard Schwartz and the Eastern Festival Orchestra take a final bow in their June 29 concert at Guilford College's Dana Auditorium in Greensboro, NC. (credit: Christopher Hill)

Gerard Schwarz leads memorable Eastern Music Festival concert, Béla Fleck adds unique twist to Gershwin

CONCERT REVIEW:
Eastern Music Festival
June 29, 2024
Dana Auditorium, Guilford College
Greensboro, North Carolina – USA

Eastern Festival Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz conductor;
Béla Fleck, banjo; Carter Doolittle, saxophone.

ZWILICH: Celebration for orchestra
DEBUSSY: Rhapsodie pour orchestra et saxophone
GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5

Christopher Hill | 1 JUL 2024

Greensboro, North Carolina, can be pleasant to visit on a June or July summer day. Like Savannah, Georgia, it is dotted with parks — hundreds of them — including two larger and lovely parks (one handsomely tailored, one wilder, with an extensive boardwalk) close to downtown. In these, one can stroll for an hour or two during the cooler part of the summer day, and many local people do just that.

In terms of general atmosphere, Greensboro is no Savannah, to be sure, but downtown Elm Street and its environs comprise six or seven long blocks full of pleasant surprises, including a major gallery (the Ambleside) and other serious galleries, intriguing shops, a fine independent bookstore, many microbreweries, and a dozen or more first-class eateries. The town also boasts Hops, one of the nation’s finest burger bars. What’s not to like?

Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina (credit: Christopher Hill)

Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina (credit: Christopher Hill)

EarRelevant readers have likely heard of the Interlochen music summer camp, where some of the nation’s most gifted young musicians go for performance opportunities few communities can provide. Greensboro provides a similar opportunity at Guilford College, which has hosted the Eastern Music Festival since 1961. The camp attracts students from all over — 37 states and over a dozen foreign countries this year.

Part of the attraction is the chance to play with gifted peers in the EMF Young Artists Orchestra, whose busy schedule this year includes works like Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Sibelius’s First Symphony, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Ravel’s Rhapsodie espanole, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra — all part of the $15 Friday evening concerts (with the opening concert being a pay-what-you-wish event). Saturday evening concerts feature the Eastern Music Festival Orchestra, directed for some years now by one of America’s best-known musicians, Gerard Schwarz, comprised of 58 faculty members, 16 orchestral fellows, and 15 students.  Your reviewer recently took in two of these concerts: a Dvořák evening on Friday, June 28, by the student orchestra and a Zwilich/Debussy/Gershwin/Tchaikovsky concert on Saturday, June 29, by the EMF Orchestra, reviewed here.


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Son of two Viennese emigrés and grandson of two Holocaust victims, Gerard Schwarz has earned an enviable musical reputation, first as a trumpeter and second as a conductor. His tenure with the Seattle Symphony rivals in length that of Seiji Ozawa with Boston. But whereas Mr. Ozawa inherited a world-class orchestra, it was Mr. Schwarz who turned the Seattle Symphony from a good regional orchestra into a world-class ensemble.

Over hundreds of commercial recordings, Mr. Schwarz has traversed much of the German and French repertoire as well as set down the better part of a notable Mahler cycle and several Shostakovich symphonies. (Your reviewer heard him conduct a stunning Mahler Fifth at last year’s Eastern Music Festival.) Mr. Schwarz is particularly known for penetrating interpretations of musically worthy but underplayed American symphonies by Hanson, Diamond, Schuman, Piston, Hovhaness, Mennin, Creston, and others. He has also recorded widely in the Russian repertoire, yet to my knowledge, he has never recorded Tchaikovsky (with the single exception of accompanying the Rococo Variations for cello). Nor, to my knowledge, has Gershwin appeared in any of Mr. Schwarz’s recordings.

Béla Fleck takes a bow at Eastern Music festival in Greensboro (credit: Christopher Hill)


Béla Fleck takes a bow at Eastern Music festival in Greensboro (credit: Christopher Hill)

Nevertheless, the June 29 program featured both Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (in its centenary year) and Tchaikovsky’s 1888 Symphony No. 5, bringing the conductor closer than he has usually gotten on disc to the core of the Big Tune repertory. Yet in the case of Rhapsody in Blue, this was still not as close to the core as one might suppose, for this performance of the Rhapsody included no piano or pianist. Instead, the audience heard an arrangement of the Rhapsody for amplified banjo and orchestra, with the solo instrument played by none other than the remarkable musical omnivore Béla Fleck. (For the curious, a CD of his arrangement is available from Amazon on Fleck’s own label.)

How did Gershwin fare in the hands of a virtuoso bluegrass player? Well, Mr. Fleck has chosen to base his arrangement on the full orchestral version of the Rhapsody rather than on Grofé’s original band instrumentation. In this reviewer’s opinion, the band version would offer a more suitable timbral mix to an amplified banjo. Against full string sections the banjo’s quick decay renders it unable to convey the grandeur of Gershwin’s Lisztian piano writing. That said, fast-paced, train-like rhythmic solo passages sounded terrific — a couple could actually be said to improve on the piano version. And although Mr. Fleck was having a bad night (for example, the page-turning pedal for his digital sheet music tablet was on the fritz), he dispatched his frighteningly difficult arrangement with aplomb and, being the seasoned performer he is, not only smiled but commented humorously to the audience on a moment when his fingers disobeyed his musical intentions. His encore was an elaborate improvisation that could be titled “From Bach to Bluegrass.” The audience response was tumultuous.


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The evening’s program opened with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s 1984 overture Celebration for Orchestra, written shortly after she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. This is the sort of imaginative programming Mr. Schwarz is known for. The piece was just modern enough to sound fresh and appealing and just conventional enough to make a strong positive first impression with audiences. Clearly, by 1984 Ms. Zwilich knew well how to creatively vary a minimum of materials for maximum effect. The packed auditorium gave it far more than polite applause; Celebration was a hit.

Second on the program was Claude Debussy’s ten-minute Rhapsodie pour orchestra et saxophone, commissioned by saxophonist Elise Hall in 1901. Debussy composed the Rhapsodie in short score late in 1903, shortly before embarking on La mer. He tinkered with the piece for a few years, sold it surreptitiously a second time to the publisher Durand, but never got around to completing the orchestration. That task was left to his friend Jean Roger-Ducasse after the composer’s death.

In its completed form the Rhapsodie was premiered in Paris, May 1919, by the Société nationale de musique conducted by André Caplet, with Pierre Mayeur playing saxophone — poor Elise Hall had by then gone quite deaf. At the Greensboro EMF concert the solo was played masterfully by Carter Doolittle. The work gives its soloist much more than an obbligato part, yet the composer fairly named the piece when he emphasized the orchestra’s role in his title. Debussy’s Rhapsodie opens like a fourth orchestral Nocturne. As it continues it seems to skip right over La mer and move directly into orchestral Images territory. The Rhapsodie certainly covers a lot of bases over its ten minutes, but the varied textures and moods are well integrated, like prime middle-period Debussy. Your reviewer was surprised by the work’s quality, given its rarity in the concert hall.


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The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 occupied the second half of the program. Tchaikovsky wrote this symphony between April and August 1888, shortly after returning from a European conducting tour that had brought him great success. The composer had long been attracted to the notion of Fate as a kind of irresistable force that can overwhelm a man’s noblest intentions and turn him into the coarsest and most carnal of creatures. He had essayed this topic in the first movement of his Fourth Symphony, with its famous Fate motive. In 1888 he came up with the inspiration that perhaps Fate could be overcome by Faith. Accordingly, as he set out writing Symphony No. 5, Tchaikovsky intended a program in which the first movement (“Andante — Allegro con anima”) once again illustrates the processes of Fate, the second movement (“Andante cantabile”) argues for Faith, and (after an obligatory charming waltz, “Allegro moderato”) the finale (“Andante maestoso — Allegro vivace”) evidences how through Faith one can indeed triumph over Fate.

As mentioned, Mr. Schwarz has recorded almost no Tchaikovsky. So how did he and his orchestra do? They brought both a measure of mature reflection and oodles of high-voltage emotion to their interpretation. They also added occasional portamento to Tchaikovsky’s string lines in just the right places. And starting with the opening movement, Tchaikovsky’s orchestration never sounded more transparent, with canonic calls and responses in different orchestral choirs coming through thoughtfully balanced and beautiful.

Whether the performers were cognizant of the composer’s program, your reviewer can’t say, but in the “Andante cantabile” he heard little of the musical affect (requiring a certain length and steadiness of breath) so often associated with faith in Wagner’s operas. Instead, tempos fluctuated almost constantly, albeit in a sensitive and convincing way. The tempo chosen for the waltz movement could not have been more appropriate — it made the music curiously touching — and in the much more complex Finale, Mr. Schwarz, the performers, and the composer seemed again to understand each other perfectly, both in terms of tempos and of program. For once, the balletic dotted rhythms of the coda sounded like well-earned laughter after a difficult trial rather than something superficial, and the sudden switch to the closing march-like peroration sounded utterly natural.

This was an imposing, heartfelt reading of the score, far better than some run-throughs your reviewer has heard in better-known musical venues (such as Carnegie Hall). If this sounds appealing, bear in mind that the Eastern Music Festival has four more weekends of orchestral performances this year by Mr. Schwarz and his professional orchestra (in addition to those mentioned above from the Young Artists Orchestra).

The Eastern Music Festival continues through July 27, 2024, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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About the author:
Christopher Hill has performed, in concert, as soloist, accompanist, and band member, classical, jazz, blues, and rock music on various keyboards and stringed instruments. He obtained a degree in musicology and has written about music, music theory, and music history for over five decades. He currently lives in Durham, North Carolina, from whence he travels to concerts throughout the Southland.

Read more by Christopher Hill.
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