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My colleague John Lambert recently chronicled the growth and improvement of the UNC-Chapel Hill Symphony Orchestra, and I have done the same for both the Duke Symphony and the Raleigh Civic Symphony orchestras. In our early issues, I also sang the praises of the two student orchestras at the Eastern Music Festival. Except for the latter, our local Triangle groups, though much improved, still don't challenge fully professional players (nor should they, for their members are, for the most part, students--and not all of them are music majors). Therefore I was unprepared for the much higher level of playing found in Aycock Auditorium on December 10 at a challenging concert that moved from strength to strength. The orchestra was the UNC-Greensboro Symphony under two conductors, and the program featured the area debut of a new faculty member.
In classical music, the works of no composer are more unforgiving of technical deficiencies than those by Mozart. They are so naked to errors that playing them is as tricky as cooking with milk. I was lured to the concert because guest conductor Richard Earl Cook had programmed Mozart's beautiful Symphony No. 38 in D, K.504. Too little Mozart is programmed in the Triangle, and when it is it tends to be Symphonies 31, 34 or 35. I happen to dote on numbers 33, 36 and 38, and I was astonished at the full rich string sound that Cook secured from the student players in the latter. Like their EMF counterparts, but unlike their Triangle colleagues, the violin sections had a fine sheen and intonation approached professional standards. The horns were remarkably secure and their phrasing was flexible. The trumpets and bassoons were excellent. I sometimes didn't like the color when the flutes and oboes played together--but they were together . Cook balanced the orchestra well, chose sensible tempos and phrased with style. His players seemed to give him everything for which he asked.
A deeply moving performance of Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo" ("Hebrew Rhapsody," for Violoncello and Orchestra), served to introduce cellist Christopher Hutton, a new faculty member who studied with Leslie Parnas at Boston University and earned his M.M. and D.M.A. degrees at the Eastman School of Music, where he worked with Paul Katz and Steven Doane*. He exhibited a fine rich tone and solid technique and musicianship. Robert Gutter, regular Director of Orchestra Activities at UNCG, conducted as penetrating an interpretation of this work as I have ever heard in concert. The student orchestra was simply astonishing. I will treasure this performance along with those I heard long ago by Leonard Rose and Zara Nelsova.
Gutter brought the concert to an exciting conclusion with a stirring performance of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff's "Capriccio Espagnol," Op. 34. This performance was special in no small part because these student players are still excited by the music and have not been deadened by playing it too many times - and too indifferently - as professionals. Their musical skills are unblunted by the realities of orchestral life, so this was an edge-of-the-seat performance with first rate playing from all sections. The violas had an especially full and rich sound. There were extensive pizzicatos and at one point the violins strummed their strings like guitars. There were brilliant solos from Concertmaster Dan Skidmore and from Principal Clarinet Leslie Miller and Principal Cello Jack Turner.
I look forward to future orchestral concerts at UNCG, where I have already experienced the high level of the student opera productions. Recitals featuring their cellist Hutton ought to be high on every music lovers' list, too.
[*Biographical details edited 12/15/01.]