The Eastern Festival Orchestra, comprised of EMF faculty, made its first appearance Saturday night under the direction of EMF Music Director Gerard Schwarz. A dizzying array of literature was offered to the large crowd — from Baroque masters Bach and Handel, to a 20th century giant’s take on the Baroque, to a quintessential romantic masterpiece.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was the violin soloist in the Violin Concerto in A minor by J.S. Bach (Germany, 1685-1750). Known for her extroverted, passionate performances, it was a surprise to hear her play so intimately, with a silken tone, spinning out slender threads of melody. The soloist was perhaps more extroverted in the second movement, with its gently surging accompaniment. In the third movement, Salerno-Sonnenberg incorporated some of the dance feel into her body movement, inviting others in the orchestra to join in the spirit of the music.
Maestro Schwarz, conducting without a baton, mostly stayed out of the way and let the music flow on its own. He made sure everyone was together in a performance that was probably the quietest I have ever heard issued from the Dana stage. However, I couldn’t hear the harpsichord in the first two works performed.
Up next was another Baroque work, Concerto Grosso in B-flat major by George Frideric Handel (Germany, 1685-1759). The performance was marked by dynamic contrasts and good energy, but mostly the five-movement work was performed so listeners could compare the 1933 adaptation of the piece by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). The German’s reworking, the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, featured the Pacifica Quartet. According to the composer, he got rid of “superfluous” elements of the earlier composition and replaced them with “real substance.” In fact, he completely rewrote a couple of the movements.
Schoenberg’s version was great fun to hear as the fugue subject was played by both winds and brass as well as by pizzicato strings (adding a buoyancy not found in the original). Toss in a couple of ritards, use percussion to point out climactic moments, add some virtuosic passages for the quartet, and you end up with a completely enjoyable Baroque piece steeped in 20th century sentiments by a composer most audiences avoid like the plague.
The Symphony No. 3 in C minor “Organ Symphony” by Camille Saint-Saens (France, 1835-1921) concluded the concert. Andre Lash served as the able organist. This literature is what the EFO really likes to sink its teeth into. Although it seemed as if it took a couple of minutes for the ensemble to get on the same page, when it did, the performance was beautifully thrilling. Wonderfully solid winds and brass playing, and magnificent soaring string melodies were the order of the day.
Throughout Schwarz milked the lyricism, as well as inciting the ensemble into full orchestral climaxes. Romantic orchestral playing doesn’t get much better than this.