An evening of terrific music-making began with Eastern Music Festival Executive Director Chris Williams thanking Greensboro City Councilwoman Nancy Hoffman for establishing the Jack Hoffmann Distinguished Guest Artist program, honoring Hoffman’s late husband.
This endowment is designed to bring a distinguished guest artist for a three-year stint to lead masterclasses, conduct, teach private lessons, and serve as a mentor to EMF’s young artists. Italian/American violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is a perfect choice to be the first artist in the program.
The third movement of Symphony No. 3 (1995) by Philip Glass (US, b. 1937) opened the evening. Although many people call Glass a “minimalist” composer, he prefers to refer to himself as a writer of “music with repetitive structures.”
Indeed, the repetitiveness was immediately evident in this 10-minute work, which does not really have a melody. Rather the work is all about dynamics and a slowly thickening layering of strings that presents static blocks of texture broken by changes in harmonies. Salerno-Sonnenberg sat first chair, taking the solo lines and directing the string players with gentle motion or bow movement. Ensemble was great.
Up next was another arrangement of a third movement; this time from the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11 (1871) by Tchaikovsky (Russia, 1840-93). The composer reworked the “Andante Cantabile” for solo cello and string orchestra in 1888. The soloist in this performance was Julian Schwarz, associate principal cellist in the faculty orchestra.
Schwarz’s fat, rich tone with lots of vibrato was displayed at the outset. This is hard-core 19th century romantic stuff, and the cellist took appropriate rubato at every turn, milking the heart-felt melodies at every turn. Communication between the soloist and strings was good—very important in a reading in which there was so much rhythmic flexibility.
Felix Mendelssohn (Germany, 1809-47) wrote his Symphony No. 10 in B Minor in his early teens. The work is in one three-sectioned movement. The EMF Chamber Orchestra presented the tender opening with gentleness that was broken by loud ascending scales, not always in sync, but certainly dramatic. The Allegro enters stealthily with brooding character. The 11-minute work concludes with seething energy.
Salerno-Sonnenberg’s strong personality and commitment to dramatic music-making was no more evident than in the concluding piece by Dmitri Shostakovich (Russia, 1906-75). His String Quartet No. 8 (1960) is a work “in memory of the victims of fascism and war;” it was arranged by Rudolf Barhsai (with the composer’s blessing) as Chamber Symphony in C Minor.
The dark work opens with a deadly and intense four-note motto representing the composer; this motive is heard in all five movements, played without break. Salerno-Sonnenberg’s solo work throughout the piece was filled with concentrated focus. The “waltz” second movement was sardonic; the third movement’s rapid-fire, three-note outbursts were terrifying. The performance communicated palpable raw emotion. The final measures were as dark as one could imagine.
A short encore was offered so that the audience “wouldn’t go home depressed,” explained Salerno-Sonnenberg; a quirky polka by Alfred Schnitkke (Russia, 1934-98).