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It's the biggest orchestra in town, in the region, in this whole part of the state. It's not always the orchestra with the most finesse, and its home base is in pretty shabby shape, but its members are passionately devoted to the music that they play, and Professor Tonu Kalam's leadership is outstanding. Based on the post-concert reception, some of the members can cook, too. So it's hard to account for the relatively poor audience turnout for one of the UNC Symphony Orchestra's most important dates of the year - the spring-semester scholarship benefit concert, featuring winners of the annual concerto competition at the University.
As usual, the program began and ended with short orchestral pieces. The opener was Jennifer Higdon's "blue cathedral," a fine work first played in this region by the Raleigh Civic Symphony in April 2005. It concurrently honors the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute of Music and memorializes Higdon's younger brother, Andrew Blue, a clarinetist. The music starts from nowhere in a mystical, ethereal way, and grows to a tremendous, life-affirming climax. Use of lots of percussion, generally with great discretion, and widespread tinkling of Chinese health balls, wielded by string players, enhance the music's other-worldly effects.
This year's soloists, all seniors, are exceptionally fine performing artists. There was a singer from Timothy Sparks' studio, a violinist from Richard Luby's, and a clarinetist from Donald Oehler's. That they are not all going forward with music is music's loss, but it's more than ok to make a living doing something else.
First up was soprano Rachel FitzSimons, who performed arias from Menotti's "The Telephone" and Bernstein's Candide. The prop — a telephone, of course — got in the way a bit in the first number, and there was entirely too much orchestra, so the words didn't come across very well. The famous "Glitter and Be Gay" was another matter entirely: here, the singer displayed control and agility that made one sit up and take notice, and she put the selection over in a totally charming and engaging way.
Violinist Hannah Mark played the second half of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto in a minor. (It was listed in the program as Op. 77, which is how it started out, but it was certainly the same music introduced in Russia in 1955 and here, too, by David Oistrakh, in its revised form as Op. 99.) Mark played the music with astounding precision, incisiveness, and power, and she was brilliantly supported by her orchestral colleagues, who made much of the richly scored work. The hall's acoustics clouded the overall effect to a certain degree in louder portions, but this was nonetheless a performance to write home about.
So, too, was the playing of Wonkak Kim in Carl Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto, Op. 57. This is a substantial one-movement work that makes considerable demands on the soloist and the accompanying forces, too, and it was if anything even more of a tour de force than the Shostakovich had been. Hearing it on the heels of the NC Symphony's recent performances of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony was wonderful, for the Concerto enhanced and complemented the larger score, with which it has much in common (including a recurring snare drum motif). The multi-section Concerto seemed at first hearing a bit more diffuse than the earlier work, but it was still a great treat to have it done locally, and so superbly well, too!
Each of the soloists also contributed program notes on their selections.
The concluding piece was Brahms' "Academic Festival" Overture, which quotes some old college tunes as it wends its merry way. It was the program's only non-20th-century work, please note, but it seems contemporary to some of us, thanks in large measure to "Gaudeamus igitur," which has surely helped down many a beer in the taverns of ol' Chapel Hill. The 100 or so musicians threw themselves into the Overture with enthusiasm, stirring up the crowd to produce a strong ovation at the end.
We're lucky to have a fistful of orchestras in our immediate vicinity. Sampling them from time to time enhances appreciation of all of them, from the youth groups, bubbling over with enthusiasm, to our college and university ensembles to our community orchestras to our chamber orchestras to our semi-professional and professional bands here in the Triangle and beyond.