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Mother used to say you can hide a world of sins beneath a coat of paint. There are probably lots of hidden sins still there, but the renovation of the auditorium* known as Hill Hall (properly, the name of the building that houses it) is considerably more than a mere facial – and more than a facelift, too. Some things remain the same – limited space backstage, for example – but much has changed. Entering the building from the west, you face commodious restroom facilities. To the left are an elevator and stairs facilitating access to the stage and permitting a direct route to the platform from the (slightly revamped) rehearsal room, which still serves as a staging area for orchestras and other large ensembles. Inside the auditorium, the seating has been upgraded, there are entry-level side sections with movable seating, there are ramps, and the main floor is sloped, so there are really no bad seats. The old proscenium arch remains, and it remains an acoustic challenge, but the lip of the stage extends some four feet ahead of it, so the forward parts of large groups and soloists (an orchestra and a pianist on this occasion) can bloom their sound directly into the room. Clouds above the stage and wood all around it help provide a solid shell. (We understand there's another shell available for smaller ensembles, too.) The organ is gone. Banners on the sides will be used further to tame the sound. In addition, shades cut off light (and glare) from the windows on the north side. The exterior of the historic building has thus been unaffected by the renovations.
Acoustically the room remains lively, with timpani strokes and cello and bass pizzicati somewhat overly resonant on this occasion; but one can now hear virtually everything and where things are coming from too, and one no longer cringes (or seeks to flee) when things are going full blast, so this is a huge improvement right off the top. It's surprising that this is the first CVNC review to describe the improved room – there was an earlier review of one of the smaller Glass concerts that did not elaborate on the changes that have taken place there. Begging readers' indulgence, I have been visiting this room since 1963, and I can tell you that few who performed or listened there would believe it – yes, it's that good, so go check it out sometime – and that can now be anytime, because atop everything else, it is now AIR-CONDITIONED.
The Chapel Hill Philharmonia is not a UNC ensemble, but its music director is on the faculty there, and its ranks would be severely diminished were UNC people (from all over the campus; and retirees, of course) not among its players. Those players number 96 now, according to the names on the roster, which means it's precisely twice the size of the NC Symphony when it made its debut in this very room in 1932. Like the hall, this expansion in terms of both size and artistic merit would be hardly recognizable to the CHP's founders: I am certain that Edgar Alden, Joel Carter, and others of the early years of what used to be called the Village Orchestra of Chapel Hill (and sometimes the Village Idiots) – and who were hesitant to call their offerings concerts; they preferred "open public rehearsals" – would be dumbfounded today. Pleased and proud too. And with justification.
Music Director Donald L. Oehler is an ideal conductor for a group like this, graced with infinite patience and a reliably calm approach that reflects a performing artist and a professor more than a maestro, with or without a capital "m." He told us he always tries to pick works new to the members, and that certainly must explain the programming of Brahms' Serenade No. 1, Op. 11, on this concert. It's a huge work with some embedded minefields that is (to tell the truth) a good deal less user-friendly (listener-friendly, too) than most of this composer's other symphonic works. Pairing it with Dvořák's "Carnival" Overture was a stroke of programming genius (as revealed in Mark Furth's extensive notes). In addition, there was a stellar reading of the opening movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 20 by CHP concerto competition winner Andrew Zhen, a 14-year-old(!) middle-school(!) student of Karen Allred. And to toss an extra dollop of frosting on this musical cake, the cadenza Zhen played was by Beethoven. What's not to like?
So the stage was packed for the Dvořák, with even a harp tucked into the back corner. The strings sounded wonderful, clear and crisp and precise and exceptionally well-defined (particularly in this venue). The winds and brass played from strength this time, too, forming rock-solid parts of the ensemble without ever intruding (winds) or dominating (brass). Oehler has a very good ear; balance and blend were quite remarkable.
The ensemble was reduced for the Mozart, and a Steinway was used. Here, too, the balance was very fine, and the work of the young soloist frankly astonished in terms of technique and musicianship. He was watchful, Oehler was watchful, and everyone on the platform seemed on the very same wavelength. It's not unusual to wish that these single-movement concerto competition evenings could be expanded to let the best young players perform whole works. This was one of those occasions. Bravo!
The Serenade was a revelation. First of all, as hinted above, this music is not often heard. It's long and not exactly a piece of cake, chocolate or otherwise. And it's Brahms, so it's a challenge to bring off convincingly. This was among the best readings of the piece I have heard, live or on records. You really ought to have been there!
Here's a vote for the other serenade on some future concert.
Till then, congratulations to the CHP, which has clearly come of age and matured into being a contender, as someone once said.
PS The CHP offers several summer concerts. We will add them to our calendar as soon as they arrive here!
*The concert room itself is now called "The James and Susan Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall," honoring the musical couple – both are organists. He was chancellor when Butch Davis was hired; she is a member of the faculty of the Department of Music. That said, it will forever be Hill Hall.