Once upon a time, when I was a lot smaller than I am now, I became aware – at home, and then out and about – of music and musicians. It wasn't long before I realized that my parents were sources of information about such things, since they'd heard and seen a lot, and one of my earliest memories is of my father, talking about a young French violinist named Ginette Neveu, who died in a plane crash in 1949, at the age of 30. (This interested me for several reasons, not least of which was that my mother was also a violinist –and she wasn't much older than Neveu....) Anyway, a recording of Ravel's "Tzigane" became something of a touch-stone for me, and Neveu's performance of it, accompanied by her brother (who was also lost in the crash), remains etched in my memory.
I thought of this recording – and of those long-ago discussions of violinists and music-making – during the first half of a May 1 program presented in Meymandi Concert Hall by the Triangle Youth Philharmonic on an atypically busy – and beautiful – afternoon. (The Juilliard String Quartet was two halls away, in Fletcher Opera Theater, and other young artists – including pianist Hattie Chung – played with the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra at Meredith College, all at the same time.)
The TYP is the nominal flagship orchestra of the Philharmonic Association*, which fields three ensembles that perform in the NC Symphony's home hall. With close to 100 players (94 on the roster plus one guest) they fill up the stage in a way that the NCS can only dream of.... And the young musicians, conducted by Hugh Partridge, take their work very seriously. There's strength and resilience in the ranks, and the sound is often splendid – rich, full, well-balanced, and nicely shaped and shaded.
Things got underway with Partridge directing the Overture to Beethoven's Fidelio – the one (of four) that normally serves as the opera's curtain-raiser. The pacing was a bit deliberate, and the horns and brass were a tad wayward at times, but overall this reading gave pleasure and delivered the goods. Student conductor Jessie Birckhead, who is the TYP's principal bassist and who is – please note! – a woman (in a marketplace that remains dominated by old white guys...) conducted the delightful little march, "La Garde Montante," from Bizet's Carmen, eliciting fine playing from her colleagues. And then Partridge returned with violinist Maia Cabeza, whom we first heard two years ago, when she was in the fifth grade(!). Her stature has increased since then – she's 12 now, and home schooled – and she's gotten even better and more impressive as an artist and interpreter. She's a student of UNC's Richard Luby, and you can hear some of her teacher and some of his teachers – including Mischakoff – in her playing. Hers was the most exciting performance of "Tzigane" I have ever heard, live or on records – including Neveu. This is a great showpiece, and she gave it her all, and she tossed off its many difficulties with the sort of ease that world-class virtuosi display on really special occasions when the wind and the chemistry's just right. The orchestra provided solid support, generally but not invariably staying out of her way; with an instrument that speaks more forcefully, she'd have been able to hold her own even better. Still, it was a remarkable – nay, incredible – musical experience, and not only for this listener – the response of the audience was heartfelt, too. I urge readers to note the name and make the trip, next time she is listed in our calendar.
The concert ended with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, but since it was also on the program of the Chapel Hill Philharmonic, I opted to hear instead the second half of the Juilliard's program, reviewed (in full) elsewhere in this journal.
The Chapel Hill Philharmonia is not a youth ensemble – it's a fine representative of the community-orchestra ilk, and in welcoming remarks, its Music Director, Donald L. Oehler, seemed eager to stress the fact that the members play for fun and then invite their families and friends to come hear them. They've done this three times this season, and the results have been enjoyable enough. For the year's grand finale, presented in Hill Hall on May 3, the program was all-Russian: the Overture to Borodin's Prince Igor (which was composed, to all intents and purposes, by Glazunov, who "remembered" it from Borodin's rough version, played on a piano), the last movement of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, and that aforementioned Scheherazade, in which Concertmaster Mark Furth was the distinguished solo violinist.
The Borodin-Glazunov is a wonderful piece that stands well on its own, and it was played with vigor and enthusiasm. There were a few glitches – some wayward horn playing at the outsets of several phrases, some excessive volume from the brasses, and some minor lapses in string ensemble – but the atmosphere was right and the work itself and the performance made favorable impressions. The brilliant soloist in the Prokofiev was Hattie Chung, a sophomore at East Chapel Hill High School who studies piano with John Ruggero. She won the Triple Crown (or a triple crown) of concerto competitions, in the process getting a whole lot of mileage out of this concerto, which she also played last fall, with the Durham Symphony, and on the afternoon of May 1, with the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. There was at times too much orchestra in Chapel Hill, so the solo part did not stand out as clearly as the composer's own performance, preserved in a famous recording – cited in Furth's outstanding program notes. That said, however, Oehler was watchful and the orchestra responded well to him and, in turn, the soloist, who infused the work with lots of mood and emotion. The Rimsky-Korsakov symphony – for want of a better word – is, as Oehler had told us at the outset, a great orchestral showpiece, and it was an ambitious undertaking for a community orchestra. There were many wonderful bits of solo work – from Furth, from cellist Dick Clark, from the winds and brasses. The ebb and flow of the sea was admirably conveyed, the love music was, well, lovely, and the storm scene was terrific. A key to having music like this live and breathe must rest with the collective commitment of the musicians, and everyone seemed absolutely on the same wave-length. The program stretched the players and the results were good. It will be interesting to see what the Chapel Hill Philharmonia will come up with next season.
*The Philharmonic Association is embarking on a campaign to endow chairs in all three of its orchestras – the TYP, the Triangle Youth Symphony, and the Triangle Youth Orchestra. This has not been officially announced, but the names of several donors are listed in the program, and the overall project is commendable, for it will help ensure the ongoing viability of this valuable artistic and educational resource in our midst. For more information, call 919/467-2727.