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EMF 2006: The Thomas Philion era 

Greensboro's Eastern Music Festival grows in scope and import

This year, the Eastern Music Festival celebrates its 45th anniversary. Conductor Sheldon Morgenstern founded the festival, then called the Guilford Music Camp, in 1962. It moved to Elon College in 1963 but eventually settled on the bucolic campus of Guilford College. Because of his own mixed experiences at music festivals, Morgenstern made the students--not the professional performers--the focus of the program. From the outset, students were organized into two full-sized orchestras, and separate piano and chamber music recitals were held. Few "big name" artists came because the director insisted that all guests stay a full week, allowing ample opportunity for student interaction. The professional musicians presented chamber music on Tuesdays and full orchestral concerts on Saturdays. Thought the student body grew from 72 in 1962 to an average of 200 today, the student-faculty ratio has averaged 2:1.

Many of the guest artists were friends of Morgenstern or players with whom he had worked as a guest conductor in Europe. One of the best known was cellist Leonard Rose, who began attending in 1974. In 1978, Rose was unable to come and sent in his place a teaching assistant named Yo-Yo Ma. Among the established European artists who appeared were violinists Gérard Poulet and Franco Gulli. Arnold Steinhardt and Michael Tree, members of the Guarneri String Quartet, made a number of visits. Josef Gingold and Lillian Fuchs were among the many famous musicians who have given master classes. The memorable concert of July 25, 1981, included what was said to be the N.C. premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in full-orchestra version, conducted by Robert Dunand, a former timpanist in the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet.

As time passed, former EMF students became guest artists. Three members of the Marsalis family are alumni. Violist Geraldine Walther became a principal of the San Francisco Symphony and, recently, joined the Takács String Quartet. At a student orchestra concert in the 1980s, incredibly rich viola sound came from a student playing in Vaughan-Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. That alumnus, Chauncey Patterson, is now the violist of the Miami String Quartet.

The EMF started with a budget of $22,000 in 1962. This grew to $154,708 by 1969, the year the festival had its first major financial crisis. But board members contributed substantial funds, and a door-to-door campaign raised another $24,000. The budget was $1.5 million in 1991.

But by 1997, the festival's debt was $182,000. Music Director Morgenstern resigned in January 1998, and Edmon Colmer was appointed interim director. Internationally known pianist and former EMF guest artist André-Michel Schub was appointed artistic director. The financial hole settled deeper, though: In 2000, a board member announced that the festival would have to close unless $200,000 could be raised by September. Dramatic increases in rental costs for Guilford College's facilities and the need for more scholarship money for EMF students had led to the strain. Corporate funding, private donations, grants, public funding and box office receipts needed to be increased.

click to enlarge Thomas Philion
  • Thomas Philion

To set the festival to rights, Thomas Philion was brought in as president/CEO for the 2001 season. He had developed a reputation for innovation as an arts administrator, and he immediately approached artists with bigger box office appeal. The Fringe series--focusing on artists with broader and more diverse appeal--was added. Seasons of guest conductors followed until internationally known Gerard Schwarz was selected as musical advisor, eventually being named principal conductor this season.

Since Philion took over as CEO in 2001, the EMF's main venue, Dana Auditorium, has housed near-sellouts, while other venues on UNC-Greensboro's campus and in downtown Greensboro have had good attendance.

High-profile artists, marketing campaigns and word-of-mouth for the professional Eastern Philharmonic and the two student orchestras have all had considerable impact. The Eastern Philharmonic, for instance, has always played at a high standard, though it achieved an increased level of artistic refinement working with Schwarz. This year, he will conduct three of the six Saturday concerts.

The July 1 Philharmonic program featured Joshua Bell in the Sibelius Violin Concerto. On July 22, Schwarz will lead the incomparable mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade in Mahler's Rückert Lieder. The season finale on July 29 is a winner: Mahler's Fifth Symphony is paired with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 26, K.537 ("Coronation"), played by Garrick Ohlsson.

click to enlarge Andre Watts
  • Andre Watts

There is an interesting array of guest conductors this year, too. Greensboro Symphony Conductor Emeritus Stuart Malina led pianist Jeffrey Biegel in the world premiere of Billy Joel's Piano Concerto during a June 24 gala benefit concert. Andreas Delfs will conduct when André Watts performs Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 on July 8. Stefan Sanderling will direct cellist Xavier Phillips in Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto and lead Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on July 15.

This year's new Wednesday series is called Friends and Great Performers. Jazz with Ellis Marsalis and Friends launched the series on June 28. Virtuosity meets showmanship and high jinx during a visit from the Canadian Brass on July 5.

Two High Point natives will hold the recital stage July 12. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, of the Metropolitan Opera, will be accompanied by longtime EMF faculty pianist James Giles. On July 19, the Orion String Quartet will program excerpts from Wynton Marsalis' First String Quartet. On July 26, the Zukerman ChamberPlayers--violinist Pinchas Zukerman and his protégés from his Canadian National Arts Centre Orchestra--will play Mozart's Viola Quintet, K.593, Dvorák's Piano Quintet and Kodály's Duo for Violin and Cello.

Two Young Artist Festival Orchestras whose members are students will present ambitious programs, too. The conductors--José-Luis Novo and Scott Sandmeier--are excellent. The centerpiece of Novo's July 6 concert is Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Sandmeier's July 7 concert will feature Eastern Philharmonic Concertmaster Jeff Multer and Cleveland Orchestra Principal Violist Roberto Díaz in Mozart's Sinfonia concertante, along with Debussy's "Clouds" and "Festivals" (from Nocturnes) and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. Many orchestral favorites appear on the other five programs. Schwarz will conduct the student orchestra as they accompany this year's concerto competition winners on July 28.

But some longtime EMF subscribers have grumbled about the move of the faculty Chamber Music series from Tuesday to Monday nights and to the limited seating of the Carnegie Room. There was an all-Mozart program on June 26, and Ravel's Piano Trio was the centerpiece of the July 3 concert. July 10 brings Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale" and Dohnányi's Serenade in C. Vaughan Williams' rarely heard Piano Quintet is on tap for July 17, and the great Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor is featured on July 24.

EMF's Fringe series takes place on the Guilford College campus and in a variety of venues in downtown Greensboro, including the Flying Anvil on Lewis Street and Triad Stage on South Elm Street. The singers include Aimee Mann and Alejandro Escovedo (July 21), and Triangle tradition Southern Culture on the Skids is one of the bands (July 16).

For the complete schedule, see www.easternmusicfestival.org. Each week, the Independent will be offering CVNC's commentary on EMF.

Recommended CVNC Reviews
American Dance Festival: The Musicians' Concert by Karen Moorman
cvnc.org/reviews/2006/062006/ADF5.html
Choral Excellence for Ten Years--The Vocal Arts Ensemble of Durham by Ken Hoover
cvnc.org/reviews/2006/062006/VAE.html

  • Greensboro's Eastern Music Festival grows in scope and import

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