Eastern Music Festival turns 50

Fifty years ago, Sheldon Morganstern organized a summer music festival for student musicians, and on the night of the first concert, wondered if anyone would come. They did, and in gratifying numbers. What began as the Guilford Music Camp has since been renamed the Eastern Music Festival. Despite a fundraising shortfall that almost destroyed it about ten years ago, the Eastern Music Festival celebrates the half-century mark with more than 100 concert during its five-week run this year.

Morganstern’s original aim continues: to allow students a chance to study with top professional musicians for five weeks and demonstrate what they learn in public performances. What began as a regional festival has become one of the top organizations of its kind nationwide. This year’s 170 student participants were selected from  800 applicants. Auditions for the Eastern Music Festival took place in nine states, from California to NewYork, and from Florida to Illinois.

The Young Artists Orchestras Series comprises nine concerts, with the students divided into two orchestras. Each performs once a week, preparing the music on a professional rehearsal schedule. Meanwhile many of them are working on the annual concerto competition, and the winners will display their talents on the last two concerts.

The faculty unites as the Festival Orchestra. This year, each of their five concerts will feature the world premiere of a new composition by the following composers: Pierre Jalbert, Peter Boyer, Michael Hersch, Philip Rothman, and Vivian Fung. Actually, the first week of performances is already over, and the Festival Orchestra participated in the first of the Friends & Great Performers Series, which coincided with the last day of the Region 4 meeting of the American Guild of Organists. I attended that concert and will report on it next week. It consisted of four concertos for organ and orchestra, all commissioned for the occasion.

Fifty years ago no music festival in the country, let alone a brand new venture like the Eastern Music Festival, could risk commissioning nine new works. That would have been box office poison. When an orchestra or major chamber ensemble risked programing any music by living or only recently deceased composers, it required special handling. Other works on the program were sure to be crowd pleasers, probably featuring the most attractive soloist of the season. The new piece would be presented right after the intermission. That way, no one could come late or leave early. They had to hear the new piece if they wanted to hear the music they really anticipated liking.

Composers of that generation often held concert audiences in equal  contempt. Times have changed, though. Audiences have responded favorably to all the new music I have heard on orchestral concerts for at least the past thirty years. The only trouble is that none of them have received enough performances over a long period of time to become well known. I hope that students at next year’s Eastern Music Festival will play at least one of the new pieces the faculty plays this year. That one of this year’s student concerts begins with a fairly recent piece by Ellen Taafe Zwillich is a hopeful sign for a needed expansion of the orchestral repertoire.

There is plenty more to write about: master classes, out of town outreach concerts, free student chamber music concerts, and the eleventh season of the very successful Fringe Series, but this post is already longer than I intended. Find all the names and dates at the Eastern Music Festival web site.

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