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As Benjamin Kilgore Gibbs tells it, he had a piano student in his family a score of years ago, and there was no place for his keyboardist – or any other young artist – to go play a concerto with an orchestra. A partnership with the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra ensued, and now the RSO – and a host of other regional orchestras and bands, too – offer concerto competitions, often with several categories.
One might argue that the RSO's annual concerto competition concert is the most important single undertaking of the venerable community orchestra's season – and that the importance extends beyond the nominal direct beneficiaries, the students themselves. Because our community and regional orchestras here don't do all that many concerti, these annual concerts are often repertoire stretchers for the orchestras and their conductors, too.
Take, for example, the RSO's "Rising Stars!" concert, presented in Jones Auditorium on the evening of May 7. This year, the program encompassed music by Lalo, Wieniawski, Sibelius, Bach, and Grieg. There were five soloists – three violinists and two pianists. There wasn't a weak link in the bunch; this was the finest collection of young artists heard in recent memory. The standard complaint about these programs applied in spades: in each case, one longed to hear the entire work, rather than selected movements. But aside from this, it was a humdinger of an evening.
The program got underway with the national anthem, followed by Dvorák's Slavonic Dance No. 8; this replaced the Second Suite from Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloé so there would be time for all the young people to perform. It received a rich, full, energetic, and enthusiastic reading from the orchestra under the experienced leadership of Music Director Alan Neilson, who knows how to maximize the acoustics of the Meredith College hall (by putting some of the strings forward of the arch).
Violinist Ashley Martin may have been the hometown favorite – she's a sophomore at Cardinal Gibbons High School, and she's played a lot in the area already. She's also from a family of musicians who have made many contributions to culture in the capital. Her performance of the first movement of Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole was exciting, in part because she threw herself into it, but also thanks to the orchestra's outstanding support. There was a bit too much orchestra at the outset, perhaps a spillover of energy from the Dvorák, but things leveled out quickly. Martin received enthusiastic response from her many friends and admirers.
Next up was violinist Gentry Lasater, a junior at New Bern High School. She essayed the serene slow movement and the dazzling finale of Wieniawski's Second Concerto, long a great favorite of fiddlers. The orchestra, led by guest conductor Jaemi Loeb, stayed out of Lasater's way, never swamping her tone. She has splendid technical chops – all the participants do – and fine artistic sensibility, too.
Closing out the violin portion of the concert was Amy Rebecca Fetherolf of Winston-Salem, a sophomore at the Cleveland Institute of Music, who performed the brooding first movement of Sibelius' Concerto. This is one of the great works of the 20th century, not so much for its sizzle (although there is some of that) as for its substance. The soloist played it with awesome skill and insight, earning a big ovation at the end. And once again the orchestra, under Neilson's leadership, showered itself with honors.
After the intermission, two pianists came to the fore. The first, Amy Rebecca Gardner, performed the first movement of Bach's First Piano Concerto, S.1052, and it was a treat to hear this played on a "big" piano again. (Truth to tell, Bach does well on pretty much anything – and a good deal better than music by most other composers of his era.) Gardner is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, and if the bio in the program is accurate, she's a remarkable musician – she is said to have begun piano in labs at Carnage Middle and Enloe High School in Raleigh, and she didn't begin private study till she was 19, which makes her (basically) an adult beginner. One could tell none of this from her playing, which was clean and polished and insightful.
Maestra Loeb, currently working at UNC-CH, returned to the podium to conduct the first movement of Grieg's Concerto for pianist Jenna M. Wood, also a senior at UNC. She has a big technique and, where needed, big sound, but her background in a chamber ensemble surely helped her in the many dialogues that dot this grand old concerto. It was big and bold where it needed to be, and the performance served as a fine conclusion for a wonderful evening of this and that, played by five talented young artists. Here's a big "thank you" to the RSO and Ben Gibbs for making this and so many other "Rising Stars" concerts possible over the years.
Note: The teachers of these young artists are: Yang Xi (Martin), Ara Gregorian (Lasater), Linda Cerone and Stephen Rose (Fetherolf), Zinaida Astrakhan (Gardner), and Thomas Otten (Wood).
Also noted: The RSO winners were not the only young artists heard recently in the Triangle. On Thursday, May 4, pianist Audrey Low, a student of John Ruggero, performed the first movement of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 with the Chapel Hill Philharmonia in Hill Hall. Donald L. Oehler conducted. The concerti of Prokofiev are not often heard hereabouts, and this one is a particularly desirable one. It's fiendishly difficult, of course – for both the soloist and the accompanying forces. On this occasion, there was much to admire despite some coordination issues. Low dazzled, as she invariably does. The orchestra began the concert with the Overture to Mozart's Magic Flute and ended with Dvorák's Symphony No. 7. There was a measure of additional good news in the program: Low will attend UNC in the fall, where she will be working with Mayron Tsong, so area music lovers will get to continue to hear her as she develops as an artist.
On the evening of May 5, the three choirs that form the Capital City Girls Choir (at Meredith College) performed in Jones Auditorium. The place was nearly packed, and the young singers were consistently impressive, delivering their selections from memory and in diverse languages with diction so clear one could have taken down the words as they were sung. In some respects, the youngest ones – in the Girls Chorus – were the best, so there's a bright future in coming years. There was an attractive Vivaldi duet, sung by Lisa Martin and Rebecca Holland. The Girls Chorale, directed by Christen Reddig, impressed, too, most particularly in a lovely choral work by Smetana. Z. Randall Stroope's Psalm 23 involved the Chorale and the "senior" group, the Cantabile Singers, who then wrapped up the evening with some of the most mature singing yet heard from young women pressing 18. Fran Page is the founder and conductor of the CCGC; Brenda Fernandez and Pam Forsythe accompanied. If you like fine singing and these groups are not on your radar screen, they ought to be!
The pre-concert music for the May 7 concert by the Dædalus Quartet (in Fletcher Opera Theater) was presented by the Goat Quartet (or, if you prefer, the GOAT Quartet – named after the initials of the first names of the founders). The quartet is a project, as it were, of the Mallarmé Youth Chamber Orchestra, and the members are violinists Orin Laursen (13) and Geni Allegretti (17), violist Therese Slatter (14), and cellist Aaron Fried (16). They played two movements of Debussy's Quartet with breathtaking skill and insight, followed by the finale of Mozart's "Hunt" Quartet and an effective transcription of Schubert's "Erlkönig." Folks who are worried about the future of classical music in our midst would do well to seek out these young artists, who are in every sense of the words both gifted and talented!
And finally, this tip: Orin Laursen performs a recital with Greg McCallum, his piano teacher (yes, he's a keyboardist, too), in the Nelson Music Room on the East Campus of Duke University on Thursday, May 11, at 8:00 p.m. See our calendar for details.