Performing in the Bealey-Curtis Auditorium, Memorial Hall, the UNC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Tonu Kalam and on this occasion conducted by Dr. Michael Griffith, opened its season with a program that looked to the eastern edges of Western art music. The first half consisted of Bohemian music by Czech composers Tomas Svoboda (b.1939) and Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). The main event was Modest Mussorgsky’s Tableaux d’une Exposition (Pictures at an Exhibition).

Mussorgsky’s 1874 Pictures at an Exhibition, superbly orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1922, still inspires listeners and performers. Ravel’s coloristic work not only exploited the power of the orchestra but revealed Mussorgksy’s inventive and virtuosic response to the artistic creations of his friend, Viktor Hartmann. According to Malcolm Rayment, long-time critic for The Herald in Glasgow, “his [Mussorgsky’s] musical representations far exceed the modest scope of Hartmann’s designs and paintings.” The young orchestra rose to the occasion with their exceptional reading.

From the transparent opening theme and elegant response by the strings to the ringing of the chimes and triumphant call of the trumpet (“La grande porte de Kiev”) the hall was filled with sound as clear as light reflected from a crystal ball. My mind drifted from the 19th century Russian artwork to the magical “Le Cirque des Rêves” from Erin Morgenstern’s 2011 novel. The woodwinds’ playful filigree of the “Tuileries” and spirited “Ballet des poussins sans leurs coques” transported me to a world of sensual pleasure. And though the finale shook the floor beneath me, the feeling of dreamlike happiness remained.

The perfectly balanced program opened with “Overture of the Season,” Op. 89 (1978). Penned by Tomas Svoboda, Professor Emeritus Portland State University, this overture is the most performed orchestral work of his compositions. Schooled in Prague and recognized as Czechoslovakia’s most important young composer, Svoboda spent most of his professional career in the United States. His more than 200 compositions range from a cappella works for choir to solo koto. If I were to identify a fingerprint, it might be the clarity and intensity of his melodic motifs. And yes, there is a Czech stamp on his material. Like Dvořák, who spent time in the United States, Svoboda never lost the imprint of his homeland.

The wonderful 1879 Czech Suite, Op. 39, by Dvořák, was also performed with skill and artistry.

This was a special occasion. The combination of careful preparation by Professor Tonu Kalam and Dr. Griffith’s skillful conducting with disciplined and talented students made for a fine performance. Since his arrival at UNC in 1988, Kalam has built the orchestra by raising the level of playing and attracting a large number of students. They have literally outgrown Hill Hall. Performing in this magnificent auditorium was just reward. The audience offered a well-deserved hearty applause.

This scholarship benefit concert featured a podium exchange. The UNC SO hosted Professor Griffith for rehearsals and this concert this week, and Professor Tonu Kalam will visit the University of Wyoming in March 2014.