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The opening concert of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts' orchestra played to a packed house on an evening when classes had been otherwise canceled due to the effects of the nearly-spent hurricane Ian. Guest conductor Robert Franz, an alumnus of the School of Music in the 1990s, and a favorite of local audiences and musicians alike, referred to the storm in his introduction to Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony, a model of "storm music" in the concert hall.
The UNCSA orchestra boasted over 60 string players and a complement of wind, brass, and percussion in keeping with tradition for a program which included a brilliant flute soloist, a politically challenging contemporary work, and a fine rendition of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the lovely "Pastorale." To be sure, the orchestra size varies, as is the custom, according to the needs of the composer (as notated in the score and interpreted by tradition), the idiosyncrasies of the conductor, and foremost by the acoustic qualities or characteristics of the hall.
In the case of the Stevens Center, originally a three-tier movie house built in the 1920s and redesigned in 1983 as a first-class concert hall with a stage modeled to accommodate travelling Broadway productions, the acoustics are excellent and superior from the balcony, so what is played or sung on stage is what is heard in the hall unless modified by amplification.
The concert opened with "Banner," a piece composed by Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981) in 2014 for string quartet accompanied by a string orchestra and re-orchestrated in 2017 to add eight wind and percussion players. The work was commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the National Anthem, the "Star-Spangled Banner," with the text penned by Francis Scott Key in1814 to the music of the popular pub song, "To Anacreon in Heaven."
"Banner" is a fascinating piece incorporating excerpts of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee…", "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and other layers of political and celebratory songs. The composer defines "Banner" as follows: "In 2014, a tribute to the U.S. National Anthem means acknowledging the contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals." Another more recent work of Montgomery, Rounds for Solo Piano and String Orchestra, will be presented by the Winston-Salem Symphony with pianist Awadagin Pratt next weekend.
The winner of one of last year's UNCSA Concerto Competitions was the high school senior, Jack King, now a student at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Young and sporting a thick mop of curly hair that claimed his attention each time he had a chance, King was a favorite of the audience – and for good reason. He has a lovely rich tone and wonderful technique, especially in the staccato passages that fill the first and third movements of the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1932) by French composer Jacques Ibert (1890-1962). This was lovely playing – I only wish that there had been more gradations of tone and color – much of the concerto was played monochromatically loud and with the same uniformly slow vibrato.
The entire second half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, a delightful romp in the woods in five movements, starting with "Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside." This was exceptionally well directed, with the tempos asked by Beethoven nine years later when he decided to publish them for his first eight symphonies. In fact, all the tempos were on the brisk side and related to each other similarly as Beethoven requested. Franz held this movement together quite well, maintaining the harmonic tension for 12 or 16 or 24 consecutive measures at a time as the development moved inexorably to its climax. This is one of Franz's strengths – allaying the form to the content, or to state it backwards, the emotional content of the music never overcomes the structure but if anything, it is reinforced by the structural strength.
Five movements are unusual in a Classical period symphony, and indeed there is no break between the delightful Scherzo and the sudden storm (the extra movement) which ends the outdoor dancing. However, that "extra movement" is the perfect preparation for the final movement and for what Beethoven entitles that last movement, "Shepherd's song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.") Stokowski and Disney (in Fantasia) decided upon the rainbow to depict this last movement, of course basing their choice on weighty authority (Genesis 9:13).
Special mention should be made of the excellent woodwind playing in the Beethoven, especially flutist Kayla Cieslak in the birdcalls at the end of movement two and clarinetist Clara Ruiz Medina in the Scherzo (third movement). In general, the balance and tone of the strings was warm and even. However, I have referred to the size of the string section of the orchestra – I am mindful of the ultimate educational reason for public performances by students: it is part of their training. And for the most part, the balance was good! However, in the Beethoven, ten basses overpowered everybody in the fortissimi, and the violas (six) were almost always underpowered.
I was very disappointed by the UNCSA printed playbill for this concert. Apart from detailed biographies of the conductor and soloist and the lists of the names of the students playing in the orchestras, there was no information about any of the composers (indeed Jessie Montgomery was mis-spelled, leading me to suppose "she" was actually a "he" [Jesse]), and no information about the pieces played. It could have meant a lot to some of the audience to know that "Banner" was composed by a young Black woman, a violinist by training, about to become composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony and that "Banner" made musical reference to many national hymns and patriotic songs. I, for one, will try to keep track of her career!