WATERVILLE — Now in its ninth year, the Atlantic Music Festival, like several music festivals in New England, is part performance series, part training institute.

For the public, the performances are a monthlong oasis of free concerts, with chamber and symphonic music, opera scenes, solo piano repertory and plenty of contemporary music. For the young musicians who attend – there are about 80 instrumentalists, singers, conductors and composers this year, working with a faculty of 40 – the festival is an opportunity for intensive coaching, and not incidentally, the chance to try out their strongest repertory and newest works before an audience.

Still directed by the composer Solbong Kim, who founded it at Colby College in 2009, the festival got underway July 2. But one of its signature programs, the Festival Orchestra, which brings together most of the student body, did not present its first concert until Saturday evening, when it drew a large, enthusiastic crowd to Lorimer Chapel for a vigorously played program of works by Richard Strauss, Ludwig van Beethoven and Béla Bartók.

Two conductors were on hand. Kisun Sung, the music director of the Gangnam Symphony Orchestra in Seoul, South Korea, and a member of the festival’s faculty, led the two large works that framed the program, with Stanislav Khristenko, a student conductor, taking over for a single work at the start of the second half.

Sung began with a suite from “Der Bürger Als Edelmann” (”The Bourgeois Gentleman”), a score that Strauss reworked several times between 1912 and 1920 and which has a history so tangled that its musical DNA found its way into several pieces, including a play by Strauss’ librettist, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, based on Molière’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” and the opera “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

For listeners today, its salient feature is a return to the neo-Classicism that was so successful for Strauss in “Der Rosenkavalier.” In the case of “Der Bürger,” Strauss’s model was the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, Molière’s 17th-century contemporary (and sometimes collaborator). And though the suite lacks the Molière/Hoffmansthal text, its depictions – particularly in the movements describing a fencing master, a parade of tailors and a grand dinner – are so vivid that they stand alone.


It is also a superb showpiece for a young orchestra, given its demands on every section and its balance of Baroque turns (the Lully influence) and late-Romanticism (Strauss’ natural language).

Sung led a nimble reading from the orchestra, which was composed mostly but not entirely of students: The concertmistress, Jehye Lee, a guest artist at the festival, is a member of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. That may explain why the violin solos that crop up throughout the work were played with such exquisite precision. But it would be unfair to suggest that the orchestra as a whole was unequal to her. Throughout the suite, the strings, reeds, flutes and brass playing was not only finely polished and radiated the warmth of Strauss’ score, but also captured the comic touches that enliven this music.

Sung also led Bartók’s “Dance Suite,” a 1923 work suffused on the composer’s fascination with folk forms but built entirely of original themes rather than quoted or reworked material. The rhythmic pointedness and sharp harmonic edges of Bartók’s score make very different kinds of demands than Strauss’ confection, and here, too, the players were up to the challenge, delivering clean, transparent textures even in the densest and most energetic passages.

Khristenko’s showpiece was Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 (Op. 72b), a work so familiar that you might almost think that it plays itself. It doesn’t, of course, and that was evident in a handful of passages where the balances were not quite right,and where crucial motifs were buried in an undifferentiated orchestral texture rather than highlighted. That said, Khristenko’s pacing was fine, most of the score’s most dramatic moments were as electrifying as they should be, and most crucially, he drew a warm, beautifully rounded sound from the orchestra.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:


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