On a cold, rainy night, Chapel Hillians had the option of a Dvorák program in Memorial Hall, presented by the NC Symphony, or, several hundred yards to the north, a far more varied concert in Hill Hall, presented by the UNC Symphony Orchestra and featuring four outstanding concerto competition winners. Those who want to do big stuff with orchestras know that size matters, and this group is the largest in the region, if not in the entire state. There weren't any huge romantic pieces on the program, but the opener, the Overture in D minor (for Chandos 2) by Handel, done up in a super inflation by Elgar, came close: "Victorian" is probably the operative word. Music Director and Conductor Tonu Kalam led this room-filling anachronism with palpable energy and enthusiasm, quite literally blowing away any cobwebs of doubt concerning "transcriptions" like this, rarely heard though they may be nowadays.
There were four prize-winners: soprano Joanna Burke (a student of Nicole Sonbert-House), pianist Crystal Wu (Thomas Otten), flutist Philip Snyder (Brooks de Wetter-Smith), and violinist Sophia Han (Richard Luby). It was a remarkable lot of talented young people - perhaps the best assembled thus far for one of these scholarship benefit concerts. They can write, too: each contributed a short note on his/her music. Clearly, teaching there remains at very high levels, and the recruiters are bringing in some major talent.
First up were Ännchen's two arias from Der Freischütz, the too-little-known early Romantic opera (Singspiel, more properly) by Carl Maria von Weber - alas his only stage work that retains a toehold in the repertory. Burke gave these numbers her all, to great acclaim. The accompaniments were lovely, too, although on one or two occasions there was a bit too much orchestra.
Wu performed the last two movements of Ravel's Concerto in G, starting with the long introduction to the second movement for solo piano. This was spellbinding in its appeal, due to her artistry - one could literally have heard a pin drop as she began. The orchestra was nicely balanced, and the crucial woodwinds did well, contributing much Gallic flavor.
The first movement of Nielsen's Flute Concerto permitted Snyder, a physically imposing presence (he'd make a commanding Wagnerian if singing were his forte!) to demonstrate his considerable chops, and he did a masterful job with this consistently impressive score. (Here, as elsewhere, it seemed a shame to hear only part of the work.)
Han made Ravel's "Tzigane" seem easy, almost as child's play. (We know it not to be so.) This was a polished, fully professional rendition in which she enjoyed excellent support from her orchestral colleagues, handsomely balanced by Kalam.
The second half, incidentally, had begun with a radiant reading of the Intermezzo from Puccini's first big success, Manon Lescaut, in which the UNCSO's 69 strings (!) truly glowed.
The judges for the competition were soprano Penelope Jensen, Salem College pianist Barbara Lister-Sink, and the NCS' Grant Llewellyn - who, across Cameron Avenue, was competing with these winners as they played!
The next concert in the UNCSO's ongoing season will be April 11. For details, click here.