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Hill Hall recently underwent another little facelift involving a paint-job ("twenty shades of beige," as Alex Ross once said of a different venue), new seats (with Naugahyde covering instead of fabric), and some rearrangements of the aisles. It is however purely cosmetic, and there's no appreciable improvement in acoustics or, alas, air conditioning.... Still, it was the place to be on Sunday evening as the UNC Symphony Orchestra hosted its annual scholarship benefit concert, featuring winners of the Music Department's concerto competition. This time the victors' circle was populated with wind instruments — there was a clarinetist, an alto saxophonist, and a soprano.
First up was Christopher Whittemore, a senior who studies with Donald L. Oehler; he played the first movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, starting and ending well enough for listeners to assess his fine tone and secure musicianship. Unfortunately, the reading went off the rails a bit, midway, but after some noodling, the thread was regained for a strong finish. The reduced orchestra gave good, incisive support under the watchful guidance of Music Director Tonu Kalam.
Benjamin Crouch, a junior who studies with Matthew McClure, selected "Tableaux de Provence," a very attractive little suite of five short movements for alto sax and orchestra by Paule Maurice (1910-67), a composer apparently known and loved by saxophonists but virtually unknown by others. The success of this score and Crouch's zesty and insightful interpretation of it makes one eager to hear more from her pen.
Soprano Beth Allen, a senior who is working with Barbara Ann Peters and Jeanne Fischer, chose two admirable selections by Léo Delibes. In "Les filles de Cadiz" (also called, simply, "Boléro" or "Chanson espagnole"), the singer demonstrated her wit and humor; in the famous "Bell Song" ("Où va la jeune Hindoue?...La-bas, dans la forêt...) she proved expressive and technically virtuosic, too, earning for her efforts whoops and cheers from the capacity crowd. The orchestra gave good support, as was the case throughout the "concerto" selections.
It's always fun to hear the best young artists at UNC as they mature during their undergrad years. This was a good crop this year. Incidentally, the soloists contributed their own program notes on their selections.
The concert began with Smetana's "The Moldau," from My Country; there was quite a little windstorm over the river as the work wended its way; as in the NC Symphony's recent Scheherazade, this wound up being quite an exciting little encounter with the forces of nature!
The evening ended with Elgar's "Cockaigne" Overture ("In London Town"). Despite its name, it has nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with imagination in what Laurie McManus' note says was "the legendary land of plenty" that eventually came to mean London. The orchestra played this grandly, as the music deserves, with plenty of mystery and atmosphere in the quiet portions and plenty of bombast in the louder ones. This is a large orchestra of around 100 players, and the musicians filled the stage and the platform built out in front of it. It's always a pleasure to hear a large symphonic ensemble like this, one that has plenty of strings!