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Subtitled "Serenades, Symphonies and Magic," this concert brought three young conductors to the attention of a large audience in Crawford Hall on the campus of the UNC School of the Arts. It was an interesting concert, both in terms of the buoyant and uplifting nature of the program and in terms of what professional musicians take for granted but has still not "jelled" in an ensemble of very gifted music students; from the very obvious matters of intonation (everybody in agreement on tuning – nobody seemed to accept the low "A" of the oboe) and ensemble playing (being "spot-on" together) to the less evident usefulness of coordinated bowings and careful balance among and between sections of the orchestra. And what is most arcane of all, how an ensemble proceeds to establish the inexorability of the climax of a movement, such that it is experienced by all, audience and performers alike.
The overture to Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), led by Andrew McAfee, opened the evening, with its imposing and symbolic chords in E flat, unfortunately marred by sloppy rhythm in the 16th note pick-up. McAfee directed with a deft hand which strove to avoid mere time-beating, although there were times when his young charges might have been better served by more of just such "time-beating."
One was immediately aware of the overly-live acoustics of Crawford Hall. In former times, there were wall hangings that attenuated the noisy aspects of this renovated gymnasium, and even a carpet on the stage. But the infrequent use of Crawford for orchestras in recent years (most concerts are in the Stevens Center and rehearsals, in another new locale) has caused the reverberation problem to be neglected. The hall favors the high pitches, so the under-staffed viola and cello sections took a double beating at the hands of large violin sections.
Antonín Dvořák's charming and popular Serenade for Strings, Op. 22, was capably led by Valentino Piran, a candidate for a Masters Degree in conducting. Foregoing the baton, Piran chose expressivity and fluidity as his primary suites, and he was surely gratified by the results. He is clearly a gifted musician with a good sense of proportion and balance, although he could do little to curb the enthusiasm (loudness) of some of the violinists who seemed to have discovered their "groove." There was something slightly awkward about the heavily subdivided beat in the Larghetto movement, but the coda to that same movement was lovely. Hooked bowings (bowings which occur in the same direction) again added an awkward note of heaviness in the last movement, but with the return of the first movement theme, everything fell into place and the world was again complete.
Konstantin Dobroykov conducted the final work on the program, Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony 104 in D ("London"). Conducting by memory, as had his two classmates, he led his young musicians with clarity and vigor — so much vigor that the Allegro of the first movement almost ran away! An almost unplayable violin passage (repeated 8th notes, 2 slurred, 2 separate, etc., at break-neck speed) at the end of the exposition reined in the tempo, and the rest of the movement was steady and well played. A brisk Menuetto (reminiscent of the "Allegro molto" of Mozart in his Symphony No. 40 in G minor or Schubert, in his Symphony No. 5 in B flat) followed, with a trio whose bassoon seemed destined not to catch up to the rest of the ensemble.
Maestro Ransom Wilson, the teacher of all three conducting students, introduced all the works and conducted the only contemporary work on the program, just before intermission, Jennifer Higdon's four-minute "Light" (2006). One of this country's most played living composers, Higdon (b.1962) is on the faculty of the Curtis Institute and the recipient of commissions from almost every major U.S. orchestra. "Light" is not atonal and maintains a regular (though mixed 4/4 & 3/4) beat. Colors abound – string harmonic interjections alternate with bowed cymbal over tenutos in the tuba and basses – later the mallets (xylophones, marimbas and antique cymbals) go mad for a time – until the whole ensemble comes to a satisfying rhythmic conclusion.
Although the audience was large, there were still plenty of seats available – which, in a city that lays a claim on the arts, should have been filled by curious and devoted citizens.