Orchestral Music Review Print

Desolation and Exuberance: UNC-Greensboro Symphony

September 26, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:

Music lovers ought to take full advantage of the high level of performance and great variety of programming available from the conservatory-level of preparation available at the School of Music at UNC-Greensboro. Instrumental proficiency is excellent and any lack of experience is offset by enthusiasm. It's too bad the audience was so small in Aycock Auditorium for the September 26 concert. The empty seats allowed too much hall reverberation that sometimes clouded some of the brass' playing.

Guest conductor Matthew Thomas Troy's opening-work stint was in partial fulfillment of the degree requirements for the Master of Music in Conducting. Active with several choral groups, he has recently been appointed Conductor of the Salisbury Symphony Youth Orchestra and teaches on the string faculty of the Music Academy of North Carolina. He also penned the excellent program notes for this concert of the UNCG Symphony Orchestra. Past guest conducting experience paid dividends in a good performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 35 in D, K.365 ("Haffner"). The tempos were somewhat fast, perhaps reflecting the influence of the early music movement, but they were never rushed. The balances between sections were good, and the string articulation was excellent. Important woodwind parts came through well, and the brass playing was mostly fine. For a fleeting moment, intonation between second violins and violas seemed to go slightly "sour" in the third movement.

The death-haunted inner life of Gustav Mahler is nowhere more clear than in the emotional devastation of his Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), a setting of five poems by Friedrich Rückert that reflect upon the premature deaths of his two children. Mahler himself was plagued by survivor's guilt associated with the loss of several siblings to childhood disease, and, ironically, his beloved daughter Maria died in 1907 after the first performance of this work, but before its publication. The texts were clearly sung by baritone Robert Wells, who is active as an oratorio and opera singer as well as a choral director. His voice is a true baritone with a lower register that doesn't have a hint of dark bass quality. His higher register took on an almost tenor-like quality that was most attractive, and the voice was evenly supported throughout. A friend thought his presentation lacked personality, but given the nature of the texts, I think his approach was most fitting, reflecting someone whose pain and grief is beyond overt show..., someone who is in shocked disbelief. Mahler calls for a large orchestra but deploys it like a delicate chamber ensemble in the first four songs and uses it only fully in the last, which, in the words of D. Kern Holoman (in Evenings With the Orchestra), "becomes a lullaby for children asleep as though in their mother's arms." Conductor Robert Gutter perfectly reined in his forces, paying careful attention to string details and ensemble. Because of its high register held at a low dynamic, the solo horn deserves special praise. All the woodwinds were very good, and the cello section sounded especially rich and warm.

After intermission, bubbling high spirits and infectious rhythms dispelled the despair as Gutter presented a joyous interpretation of Dvorák's Symphony No. 6, in D, Op. 60. Those who are used to bass-shy sections even in our regional professional orchestras would have been amazed: this performance luxuriated in the presence of nine doublebasses squeezed along the back of the stage. Gutter's sense of style was excellent; nothing was allowed to drag, and the important rhythms were well sprung, not least in the delightful furiant, which has a wonderfully contrasting trio section. The conductor had some dozen principal players stand to receive the enthusiastic applause of the sparse audience.