Learning to love the Eastern Music Festival

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The Eastern Music Festival runs through this weekend in Greensboro.

by Brian Clarey

A full-blown orchestra is a mighty army: phalanxes of high and low strings, platoons of horns and woodwinds, a couple of bassoons poking out like mortars and the kettle drums booming like distant explosions.

On Saturday night, the Eastern Music Festival Orchestra sits at attention, all 83 of them, as Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, resplendent and polished, introduces the first number.

The CEO of Pace Communications is a pivotal figure in the Eastern Music Festival hierarchy, and not because of any musical talent — in her remarks she admits to growing up in a home bereft of classical music.

“Our Saturday-night fare was Lawrence Welk,” she says.

But last year she personally funded 10 years’ worth of commissioned works written for the EMF, which at 53 years is perhaps the longest-running music festival in the Triad, and certainly one of its most ambitious.

Tonight’s selection is “Lullaby,” a piece by American composer John Corigliano that expands on an earlier composition written for violin and piano. This newest piece is dedicated to McElveen-Hunter’s mother, who the CEO says once made her daughters write the word “can’t” on a piece of paper and bury it in the backyard.

The first violinist and concertmaster, Jeffery Multer, makes a separate entrance — being first violinist in a orchestra is a little bit like being Keith Richards. And then the maestro, Gerard Schwarz, comes out. Being the maestro, to bend that mighty beast of an orchestra to your artistic will, is like nothing else in the world.

With a swoop of his baton he wakes the sleeping giant.

Multer opens, eliciting a beautiful string of notes from his instrument, and then there is the orchestra humming behind him: low strings and muted horns. The piece slowly comes to life, like a kind of magic, and the army marches us through the piece. We move across the swells and valleys of the strings, appreciate the significance of the woodwinds, rise and fall with the nuanced tension and release of the movements. It’s hard to believe that all of this organized noise is real, completely analog, devoid of amplification yet still filling Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium all the way up to the chandeliers.

When they finish, the music quite literally hangs in the air for a moment.

***

It’s a major undertaking: five weeks of classes, rehearsals and performances, with a couple hundred musicians and dozens of events, centered mainly on the campus of Guilford College but with tendrils reaching all over the city. Students come from all over the world to study with acclaimed musicians who also take residency in the city for the summer.

For the people who follow this sort of thing, it’s like Bonnaroo extended over five weeks, but with fewer overdoses and a much earlier bedtime.

It’s true that seniors constitute a goodly portion of the EMF crowd. But if EMF is a white-haired Bonnaroo, it’s also an international honors-level band camp.

On Thursday, July 17, conductor Grant Cooper brought the Young Artists Orchestra through his own composition, Appalachian Spring, which they would perform that evening.

His baton hand swept and flowed, unfurling like an elephant’s trunk, poking like a punch-press, chopping like a samurai.

He paused at intervals to give instruction or sing a melody.

“Before 51, you beat the rest of us at that pickup.”

“I’m going to try to help the flutes by going into fourth-notes.”

“Violins, help us out, because there’s the slightest acceleration into this movement.”

“We are still shortchanging the quarter-notes.”

But in the end, as the last note fades, he’s satisfied.

“Alright,” he said. “We are ready to perform this piece. Very, very good things ahead. Let’s go to Strauss.”

The next day, the pianist Jon Kimura Parker held court in the decidedly starker Sternberger Auditorium, Guilford College’s black-box theater. Under a square of bright spots, Kimura listened to student Becky Lee of Busan, Korea type out Chopin’s “Scherzo No. 3” in C-sharp minor at one of two baby grand pianos lined side by side. The audience filled perhaps three quarters of the risers.

It’s a dramatic piece, written in an abandoned Spanish monastery in 1839.

Parker’s accolades include gigs at Carnegie Hall, touring with the Royal Philharmonic and command performances for the Queen of England, the US Supreme Court and the prime minsters of Japan and Canada. He’s currently a professor of piano at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston. He knows the piece well.

When Lee wrapped, Parker offered a path to better understanding the music.

“[At this part], it’s actually not in three at all,” he said. “It’s in four…. Since they go by very quickly, they feel almost like beats, but each one of those beats is divided in three.”

He took the other piano and played the piece from memory. Lee tried it again. Lesson learned.

Before the next student in the master class, Peter Smith of Winston-Salem, took a shot at Profokiev’s “Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor,” Parker regaled the audience with a joke about the blind jazz pianist Art Tatum with the punchline: “There’s a reason Art Tatum never played in C major.”

In that room, it killed.

***

On Saturday night, after Corigliano’s commissioned piece, student stagehands clad in black wheel a full grand piano to the fore of the stage, in front of the maestro’s platform.

Parker, sharp in a white diner jacket, his hair slicked back, his eyeglasses ditched for the performance, slides onto the cushioned stool and sets to work on Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with an 83-piece backing band.

At the keyboard, his hands come alive, his fingers — now like clawhammers, now like mating swans, now like dancing spiders, now like marching soldiers, now like a racing centipede — achieve a sentience of their own.

The “18th Variation,” so beautiful, a century of stoic Russian despondency and piquant sorrow woven into the melody, washes over the audience like a history lesson.

At the finish, Parker earns a standing ovation, takes his bow and his flowers, then exits stage left and comes back for his first-set encore.

The piece, one of Dvorak’s Slavic Dances in C-minor, presents a dilemma: It was written almost 150 years ago as a four-hand piece, meaning that to perform it Parker will need another pianist to sit at the grand with him.

“Is there a pianist in the house?” he asks.

William Wolfram, whom Parker calls “Bill,” rises to the occasion.

Wolfram, an internationally renowned pianist in his own right, performed the evening prior with conductor José-Luis Novo and the Young Artists Orchestra: Respighi and Rossini’s La Boutique Fantastique in its entirety.

Now he bounds from his seat in the auditorium and joins Parker at center stage, jostles for position on the piano bench in a showbiz flourish, and then the two are into the piece.

The piano is at heart a percussion instrument, and people in the close seats can see the soft hammers striking the strings reflected in the underside of the raised lid of the grand piano.

Parker plays the melody while Wolfram holds down the rhythm on the low notes. And then, like Jaco Pastorius and John Scofield, like Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, they switch roles with Parker punching out the beat and Wolfram clawing out a low-end melody.

The room eats it up, and after the artists bring the piece in for a landing they jump up from their seats for another standing O.

It’s another EMF moment. One for the ages.