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Conductor Donald L. Oehler cuts the members of the Chapel Hill Philharmonia no slack. For the community orchestra's latest concert, presented on May 6 in Hill Hall before a smallish crowd, the program included a big, demanding piece by Wagner - the short but difficult Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin - and Brahms' Symphony No. 2. The band fielded 48 strings, but with 24 violins, seven violas, thirteen cellos, and four basses on the personnel roster, it looks a tad unbalanced, so it is a tribute to Oehler and his players that there were few problems with the sound the ensemble produced. The low end was rich and full, the top often possessed an impressive sheen, and even in the Wagner snippet, the strings were consistently audible. There were some patches of dubious intonation in the winds and brasses, and some of the winds sounded a bit nasal at times, but the opening number went surprisingly well. It helped that it was taken at a healthy clip and that Oehler paid scrupulous attention to the dynamics.
There was a big pause after the opener, to allow for setting up the piano for the next piece. If I'd been the stage manager, faced with a 3-4 minute introductory piece, I think I'd have had the piano in place at the outset, to spare the delay. In any event, the concerto turned out to be one of the highlights of the event and perhaps of the spring season as well. There are two reasons for that: pianist Andrew Tyson, a junior at Durham Academy who studies with UNC's Thomas Otten, and who captured first place in the CH Phil.'s 2004 concerto competition, is a stunning player with tremendous technical skill and artistic sensibilities not often found in one so young; and the piano, half of UNC's pair of matching Steinways, was in tip-top shape. As a result, Tyson's performance of the opening movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, a work that has served as the first big concerto for many, many students, sounded wonderful. In a recent review of Raleigh Symphony concerto competition winners, I alluded to the challenges of playing single movements and stated that there are times when one wishes the performances were truly complete; this was such an occasion. The orchestra provided good support, and at the end the place erupted with applause.
The Brahms had its points - it was nicely shaped, the balances and dynamics were fine, the playing was enthusiastic and energetic. It's not an easy work, and there were some relatively minor problems, including some pitch sags, some ensemble lapses, and some overall unruliness here and there. These glitches, which would surely have been resolved before a second public reading, if there had been one, were offset by the performance's considerable drama and fire and by a great deal of beautifully shaped and expressive playing. The musicians were rewarded with audience response that matched their efforts in terms of commitment and fervor.