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While our State's major regional orchestras have made enormous improvements over the last decade, there is one deficiency they all share to a degree — a shortage of string players, compared to major orchestras. That was certainly not a problem on stage in Stevens Center, where the NCSA Symphony Orchestra fielded a dozen each cellists and violists, backed by eight double basses. The violin sections were comparably large, too. This allowed the orchestra to produce a deep, rich sound whether playing loudly or very softly.
Although not identified from the stage or in the program, the concert's first work was led by Andrew McAfee, former principal horn of the NC Symphony, some of whose baton outings have been chronicled by CVNC. Béla Bartók's set of Rumanian Folk Dances (1915) consists of seven very brief pieces ranging from slow to fast. They are based upon folk materials the composer collected between 1910-14 and arranged for piano, for violin and piano, and for full orchestra. Twelve folk tunes are heard in eight minutes, and Bartók precisely notates the duration of each piece to the second. McAfee led the music with graceful restraint, securing fine string discipline and exact rhythms. There were strongly characterized solos for clarinet and Concertmaster Joshua Holtitz.
The orchestra's Music Director, Ransom Wilson, an NCSA alumnus, led the rest of the program, prefacing each work with brief comments. This year's concerto winner was scheduled to do the Bartók Viola Concerto, so Wilson planned a program around Hungarian Music. "Les Préludes," the third symphonic poem by Franz Liszt, gave full scope to the musicians, allowing them to "pull out all the stops." Wilson paced the work precisely, building up the tension and phrasing the various thematic transformations beautifully. The lush string sound was complimented by confident brass and woodwind attacks.
Bartók composed several of his most accessible works while suffering from leukemia, which was to prove fatal. He completed the Third Piano Concerto, sometimes known as "the Asheville concerto," as a vehicle for his wife. Renowned violist William Primrose commissioned a concerto, but the composer died before completing it. Bartók composed by writing the solo parts with shorthand for later orchestration on papers to be assembled later. His student, Tibor Serly, working from such scraps of notes, completed a score for the Viola Concerto in 1949. The work plays with tonality, exploits orchestral textures, and uses the composer's typical variation technique. It is a gorgeous piece that deserves wider exposure.*
Bartók would have been pleased with the confident and expressive performance of violist Laura Manko, this year's Emerging Artist winner, who has racked up an impressive array of honors and prizes. She produced a glowing, plangent tone from her instrument and played from memory. Her intonation was flawless, and her articulation was clear no matter how fast the tempo. She playing reflected the assurance of a seasoned professional soloist.
There was nothing Hungarian about "Hee Haw," by Randall Woolf (b.1959), but the title was fully justified by the tone of the work. Two sopranos and someone "DJ'ing" recordings of square dance calls were added to a greatly reduced orchestra. The latter sometimes suggested "station-bleed" in pre-digital radios. Soprano Marilyn Taylor and her student, Jodi Burns, entered the spirit of the piece, having donned cowgirl outfits for their brief vocalise and heavily accented snatches laden with thick Southern drawls. Wilson said the composer intended the audience to laugh, and guffaws abounded. The orchestration was a metaphorical square dance. The scoring for muted trombone was my favorite.
The Suite from the opera Háry János, Op. 15, by Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), received a terrific, vivid performance. In folk tradition, when a story-teller begins his tale with a sneeze, it means his story is "true." The "sodium" count is probably very high, too! There was no hint of student-orchestra hesitation in the perfect shaping of the Suite's opening orchestral sneeze. Every sudden change was taken in lock step. Important solos, such as the authentic Hungarian melody first played by the solo viola, the plaintive saxophone, or the brilliant horns, were given with confidence and a fine sense of style.
A distinctive Hungarian elements in the Suite is provided by a concert cimbalom, a type of hammered dulcimer. It stands on four legs and is comparable in range of pitch to a small piano. Wilson drew attention to the instrument before playing the Suite, saying that there are barely three players in the whole US who can read music and play the cimbalom in the Kodály. Christopher Deane, currently teaching percussion at the University of North Texas, is one of those few and an NCSA alumnus asa well. Deane's idiomatic playing of the prominent cimbalom solos was the icing on the cake. My colleagues and I have reviewed him in at least three concerts statewide featuring the Kodály.
*Recordings of both performing editions of Bartók's Viola Concerto — the 1949 Serly edition and the 1995 edition prepared by Peter Bartók and Paul Neubauer — are on the Naxos label. Violist Hong-Mei Xiao is accompanied by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra led by János Kovács.