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University of North Carolina School of the Arts Smashing Successes

& "nu plays new" - UNCSA Young Composers

May 22, 2009 - Winston-Salem, NC:

The UNCSA Grand Symphony Orchestra, directed by Ransom Wilson, played its closing concert of Russian music to an exuberant crowd in the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. Starting the concert was a work entitled "Lyric Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra" by the young composer Yevgeniy Sharlat (b.1977). A native of Moscow, he received his music education at Yale University, the Curtis Institute, the Juilliard School, and the Academy of Moscow Conservatory. He is currently a visiting professor of composition at the University of Texas in Austin.

UNCSA alumna Angela Michelle Story was the soloist in this intriguing one-movement piece. This is an interesting work, and it was well played and well received. It starts with cluster-like sustained chords featuring many seconds and tritones over an ostinato beat in the low harp. The enthusiastic playing of the large student orchestra threatened to over-power the soloist, who struggled valiantly, especially in the large climactic moments preceding a short cadenza which signals the return of the atmospheric recapitulation. (The composer might seriously consider re-orchestrating several passages to permit the soloist to be heard.)  In quieter passages, we discovered Ms. Story's lovely warm tone and excellent intonation.

The "Lyric Fantasy" was followed by a stellar performance of Rachmaninov's popular "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," Op. 43. A set of 24 variations for piano and orchestra on the well-known 24th Caprice for solo violin by the Italian virtuoso Niccoló Paganini (1782-1840), the work is almost a concerto in three movements, played without a pause. The brilliant soloist, Hsin-I Huang, a native of Taiwan, is a high school senior and a student of Eric Larsen at UNCSA. Lithe and nimble in delicate passages, bold and penetrating in the powerful ones, and expressively romantic throughout, this was one of the best performances pf the Rhapsody I have heard. I predict a great career for this young soloist!

After intermission, Maestro Wilson and his young charges challenged the daunting and monumental Fourth Symphony by Tchaikovsky. Except for a less than unanimous attack on the first note and some hurried playing of the first bassoon, this was an excellent performance. Well-balanced brass, lush strings, and brisk tempos characterized this performance, which brought the audience to its feet with thundering applause and cheers from the students in the balcony.

"nu plays new" - UNCSA Young Composers

Several weeks earlier (May 2, 2009), I had the privilege of attending a concert in the Watson Hall (on the UNCSA campus) of new works by emerging composers studying at UNCSA, played and directed by students at the school. I was stunned by the quality of the performers and student conductors and especially by the quality and overall diversity of styles of the offerings of the young composers. Ranging in age from 19 to 37, they spanned the gamut from serious to humorous and romantic to intentionally dissonant.

It is a tribute to their teachers — Laurence Dillon, Kenneth Frazelle, and Michael Rothkopf — that the works on this concert were not derived from the style of their teachers but, more broadly, from the styles of the last hundred years. Typically, composers are "judged" on the corpus of their compositions, and rarely on their youthful works — except for Mozart, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Rossini, Stravinsky, and others.

Alicia Willard (b.1988) explored bi-tonality and poly-rhythms in her chocolate-tainted "Ganache," for two pianos. Benjamin Garner and Mikael Darmanie (who drew the lion's share of piano parts throughout the evening) were the soloists.

"Music for Brass and Piano" by Lucas Hausrath (b.1987) followed, with percussive sounds of sharp attacks by the muted brass that play in a rhythmically coordinated manner while the piano indulges in free meanderings. The wild ride to the end finished in an explosive but consonant chord.

Two Sketches for string quartet, by Tom Brennan (b.1982), begin very softly with the most primitive of consonances, octaves and fifths, and then follow the order of the harmonic series through the flat 7th, 6th, 2nd, M3rd and ending with a desolate feeling. In the second movement, "Memory," the violin and viola play very expressively in imitation of each other, leading the work to its intentionally ambiguous ending.

Ted Oliver's (b. 1989) Childhood Antics was the most amusing work of the evening; Greg Lloyd, trumpet, and Geoff Seelen, trombone, were worthy of  stand-up comedy or vaudeville, all while playing exquisitely the three movements (antics): "War Games," "Race," and "Tattletale!"

Tom Brennan's second piece of the evening, "Rock Creek Bucolic," is written for a typical woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) augmented by a soprano saxophone. Recalling the baroque era with its mordents and grace notes and the American tradition established by Aaron Copland with its use of fifths, fourths, and octaves, this attractive piece closed the first half with an effective jazzed-up ending.

The most interesting piece of the evening came just after intermission with "Mutations," by Michael Ahrens (b.1972). Apart from some intonation problems (matching the sharp horn with the naturally low cello harmonics, another orchestration problem) this well executed piece benefitted from the clean and clear conducting of Valentino Piran. Ahrens has explored every possible color and sound effect the largish group (12 musicians) could produce, from glissando to trill and flutter-tonguing to ponticello, as well as a number of novel percussion effects.

Fire and Ice: The Battle for Dominance is the title of the three-movement piece by Jeremy Phillips (b.1990) for a similar group of musicians. Much more tonal than "Mutations," and occasionally recalling Carl Orff, this work was directed by Andrew McAffee. There were many lovely moments; the jazzy part of "Fire," the expressive clarinet solo (Kania Mills) in "Ice," and the expressive use of the mallet instruments in "Dominance."

The closing piece on the program, One of Many Factors, by Jesse Blaire (b.1981), is a more rigorous work with an introduction making use of intervals (4ths and 3rds) followed by a fast section in an imitative or contrapuntal style. The ensemble was effectively conducted with somewhat florid gestures by Konstantin Dobroykov.

In this "supermarket" of new works, there was something for every one, a broad diversity of styles and moods of music. It is refreshing to witness the variety of gifted young composers' offerings. Bravo young composers; Bravo faculty; Bravo performers!