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An academic concert, on the face of it, looks very much like its professional counterpart. But those involved with the former — conductor, musicians, and audience members — bring to that event a pastiche of goals and expectations quite different from the latter. Such was the case for the East Carolina University Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of the school year, under the direction of Dr. Jorge Richter.
Unlike Maestro Richter’s conducting counterparts in professional organizations, whose goals may focus primarily on the audience, his primary objectives are pedagogical. Therefore, Sunday’s performance was in part a demonstration of the ensemble’s attention to his instruction over the past few weeks, and they confidently swept through Verdi’s La Forza del Destino overture, provided a fitting backdrop for the Bartók viola concerto, and navigated one of the giants of the repertoire, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.
Didactic purposes aside, the La Forza del Destino overture was a great concert opener. The fortissimo brass chords at the outset caused tykes in the front rows (Suzuki book one-ers?) to spin around in their seats and rivet their attention on the “big kids” they had come to see perform. It was nice to hear this ensemble attend to dynamics throughout the concert, including careful pacing in drawn-out crescendos. There were a few intonation difficulties in the brass section, but overall the work was dramatic and enjoyable, confirmed by shouts of appreciation and warm applause at its conclusion.
Those whose goal in attending was to simply enjoy an afternoon of good music were certainly not disappointed by the Verdi and Beethoven, but they had the particular good fortune to hear Melissa Reardon, viola professor at ECU, perform Bartók’s viola concerto. Regrettably, the program contained no biographical data from Ms. Reardon’s impressive resume, such as her debut with the Boston Symphony at age thirteen, her MM and GD from New England Conservatory, winning first place at the 2003 Washington International Competition, tours with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, and her current position as violist with the Enso String Quartet.
Reardon’s elegant and somewhat reserved demeanor suited the serious character of the music, which featured post-tonal sonorities and gypsy-like musical idioms of Bartók’s Hungary, as well as perhaps, in one theme, the drone and chanter of the bagpipe. The work as it exists today is the result of a serial collaboration. Bartók was working on the piece at the time of his death in 1945, and his student Tibor Serly completed it. Later, it was edited by William Primrose, the Scottish violist who had commissioned Bartók to write the work. In 1995 a second version was written from the sketches by Bartók’s son Peter and violist Paul Neubauer. Playing from the Serly/Primrose edition, Ms. Reardon gave a virtuosic performance of this stunning work, and the orchestra rose to the challenge of playing with both drama and delicacy.
In addition to community members of a variety of ages, the audience included a phalanx of School of Music faculty supporting and checking the performance abilities of their charges, families witnessing freshmen playing their first university concert, enthusiastic student friends of the performers, and local high school orchestra musicians looking forward to hearing a live performance of the Beethoven. Each had a unique concern for what took place on stage.
Many of those on stage were probably playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the first time, a landmark occasion for any orchestral musician. The brass and strings effectively played their interchanges in the first movement, and dynamics continued to be observed. The double-reeds faltered a few times; certain passages compel student musicians to spend time in excerpt books, but lessons are learned through performance as well. Dr. Richter did not back away from taking appropriate tempos, including the brisk pace called for in the fugato of the third movement, which put cellos and basses through their paces. As the work came to a close, the measured rise in dynamics culminated in a climactic joining of forces and trumpet flourishes, bringing the concert to an exciting conclusion.