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Music lovers facing economic stress (and who among us isn't?) might want to consider latching onto some of the many free or low-cost offerings presented by our educational institutions. One such program was given in Hill Hall on February 25 as the UNC Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director Tonu Kalam offered a richly-varied concert spanning several centuries of consistently attractive and sometimes compelling scores. The UNCSO is the region's largest, by far, and it possesses (among other things) the richest "floor" of any of our NC bands - there are (no kidding) fifteen cellists (including our CVNC colleague Jeff Rossman) and six double-bassists, so one may be assured of hearing the "low end" at all times, which is not invariably the case elsewhere.
The evening began with an atypically rough entrance for Berlioz's "Rakoczy March," from The Damnation of Faust , but things settled down promptly, and the brassy piece, which often serves as an encore, and which here served to mark the Berlioz bicentennial (he was born in 1803), set an admirable tone for the rest of the concert. That said, it got me to thinkin' (always dangerous for a critic) about timpani and drums, as had happened during Duke's recent performance of Brahms' German Requiem - there wasn't quite enough umphf in UNC's percussion section, in the Berlioz. Back when I was an undergrad, it seems to me, our timpanists and bass drummers attacked such pieces with far greater enthusiasm than is the case nowadays....
There were three outstanding student soloists, all of whom were winners of UNC's annual concerto competition. The first was Andrew Hummer, a tall, lanky kinda guy whose physical size (and, most certainly, his work with Lynn Glassock) enabled him to be everywhere at once as he played the third movement of David Long's often-exhilarating Marimba Concerto (1997). The crowd went wild, and the composer made a bee-line for the stage to share in the accolades. (Hummer will play again, with his teacher, in the same venue, when Rowan and Whang perform Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion on April 6.)
Kevin Crotty, who was the subject of a short news item in CVNC (see http://www.cvnc.org/news/archives.html ), and whose UNC teacher is Music Department Chair James Ketch, dazzled his fans and others in attendance, too, with the first movement of Hummel's Trumpet Concerto. Never mind that the piece is a staple of classical-&-baroque top-40 stations - this was a humdinger of a reading, and (as was the case for most of the evening) he was admirably supported by Kalam and his UNCSO colleagues.
Flutists Wayla Chambo and Cassidy R. Pratt, both of whom are products of Brooks de Wetter-Smith's studio, and both of whom are in effect double majors, sailed through the first movement of Cimarosa's Concerto in G Minor, providing virtually identical tone and stylistic touches in a work not often heard (except, perhaps, in flute classes). Balance with the somewhat reduced orchestra did not always spotlight the soloists, but they made themselves heard in the crucial sections. Floral bouquets were among the tributes these artists received at the conclusion of their part of the program.
Baritone Jonathan Rohr, who works with UNC's Barbara Ann Peters, sang two of Leporello's arias, from scenes 1 and 2 of Mozart's Don Giovanni . His mature, rich voice was splendid for "Notte e giorno faticar," which is the first singing heard in the opera, and in the famous "catalog aria," "Madamina," in which the Don's manservant enumerates his master's conquests ("... in Spain, already 1003!"). On this occasion, Rohr unrolled a scroll containing the names of these damsels.... On several occasions, Beecham's directions, captured during a recording session for The Abduction from the Seraglio , came to mind: using just "half the strings" would have enhanced the audibility of the singer's lower phrases. Nonetheless, he would appear to have great promise, and his work was impressive. (There were, alas, no texts or translations, so the audience was left to guess what he was singing about....)
The concert ended with the second Suite of "Ancient Airs and Dances," orchestrated by Respighi. These collections of tunes from long ago (by, in this case, Fabrizio Carosio, Giovanni Battsta Besardo, Anon., Marin Mersenne, and Bernardo Gianoncelli) are not heard very often any more but - like Stoki's transcriptions - served to introduce several generations of music lovers to the wonders of "early music." Chances are certain ivy-covered musicologists and purists, too, still take offense - and would have blanched at the synthetic harpsichord used in Hill Hall - but Kalam clearly loves the music, and he elicited some truly wonderful playing as the selections ran their course.
The UNCSO's next concert (which happens to be a scholarship benefit event, so it is not free) will be given on April 24, when the aforementioned pianists, Rowan and Whang, will make their last pre-retirement appearance in Hill Hall, playing Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos, together with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's Die Meistersinger and Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings.