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The combination of imaginative programming and youthful players' enthusiasm has often attracted CVNC reviewers to the local Triangle university orchestras. When one adds the high level of individual instrumental and ensemble skills to be found in a full-fledged conservatory program, such as is found at the Triad's University of North Carolina at Greensboro campus, they become a virtual call of the Siren of Music. As part of an annual campus-wide focus on an international region or nation, programming by UNCG's University Symphony Orchestra has taken on an added dimension of interest. During his welcome to the February 25 concert in Aycock Auditorium, Music Director Robert Gutter said this year's focus was Japan. Introducing the concert's guest conductor, he explained that the recent heavy snows in the Northeast had caused Hideaki Hirai to miss one rehearsal. The rising young conductor had just come from the successful world premiere of his opera Princess from the Moon , based on an old Japanese folktale and given in Tokyo's newly-opened Meguro Persimmon Hall. Active internationally as both a conductor and composer, the 30-year-old Hirai co-founded the 35-member Czech Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra.
The concert opened and closed with excellent traditional interpretations - of Brahms' autumnal Symphony No. 3 in F, Op. 90, and the brilliant concert-suite version of Stravinsky's Firebird , in its 1919 edition. In both, every section of the orchestra was, overall, superb; an extra rehearsal might have cleaned up the few minor flubs that were inconsequential with so much secure solo work and disciplined ensemble work on display. I filled five pages with detailed notes about individual and group performances as well as Hirai's interpretative touches that enlivened these oft'-heard war-horses and the Japanese novelties they surrounded. The outer movements of the Brahms Symphony were fine, and I can't imagine the two inner ones being better paced or phrased. In both works, it was a luxury to have eight double-basses producing plenty of "bottom" for the full sound of the Brahms; they were essential in the famous and ominous opening of Firebird , where half bowed deeply and half plucked the strings. In the Brahms the eleven lush violas were most welcome, since so much of it calls for their somber colors. Since many sections had co-principals who rotated duties in different works, full and accurate credit for the many superb solos in the woodwinds, most of the string sections and most of the brass as well as the two excellent timpanists is impossible to provide here. Concertmaster Dan Skidmore had more than enough virtuosity for the brilliant, exposed solos in the Stravinsky. The horn section was magnificently matched and together throughout, and as were the trombones - a glorious trombone glissando in Firebird was particularly memorable.
The Japanese portion of the program was very much a family affair! The major long work, Tosa-Fudoki , A Symphonic Poem (1981), was by the conductor's grandfather, Kozaburo Hirai, to whose memory Hideaki Hirai dedicated the entire concert - the composer of some 5,000 works passed away in November 2002. His highly accessible and interesting four-movement symphonic poem is composed in a Romantic and tonal style easily encompassed by musicians whose orchestral techniques permit playing Dvorák, Strauss and Shostakovich. The opening "Ouverture" is based on the famous folk tune "Yosakoi," from the Kochi prefecture on Shikoku Island. It features a lush string sound, skillfully articulated in Greensboro, a trumpet solo, a steady timpani pulse and a surprising ending featuring the snare drum. The very winning light and sparkling Scherzo opens with fleet pizzicato strings - was there a hint of Mendelssohn's faeries? - and includes brilliant solos for the oboe and concertmaster. This section is definitely worthy of inclusion in the standard repertory. A love song from same prefecture, introduced in the Scherzo's trio, serves as the basis for the fine Intermezzo, which opens with slow pizzicatos, followed by rich violin sounds and a very difficult horn solo, wonderfully played by Assistant Principal Helen Peastrel. The Finale has many showy solos for clarinet, flute, and cello and a fiery one for the first violin. The unique blending of the eleven violas over a base of five beautifully-blended horns - the colors marvelously juxtaposed - was truly memorable.
Five traditional Japanese melodies - "Nambu-ushioiuta" (a shepherd song), "Soran-bushi" (a fisherman's song), "Kuroda-bushi" (an ancient samurai love song), "Komori-uta" (a famous lullaby), and "Kagome-kagome" (a children's play song) - formed the basis of the Rhapsody on Japanese Folk Tunes (1993) by the conductor's father, Takeichiro Hirai, a noted cellist. The melodies are strong, rhythmically, and the intriguing set features many rich, low string sonorities in a tonal, readily accessible way.
After prolonged and fully-justified applause, conductor Hirai offered as an encore a special treat, the Prelude to Act II from his own Princess from the Moon . Unlike his father's and grandfather's works heard here, which seem to rely on Japanese folk themes in fluent Western orchestral garb, Hirai's own music is tonal, skillfully orchestrated, and thoroughly in the Western romantic idiom. The Act II Prelude opens with brilliantly complex scoring of a dirge-like melody for all the strings, starting in their lower registers. All aspects of string articulation were exploited as were subtle dynamics and phrasing. Given adequate exposure, this could well become as popular as the Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana .
My colleagues and I often fault presenters for programs that barely list the works to be performed and the players. The uncredited full notes on both the familiar and the new works given at UNCG made the University Symphony Orchestra's program a model for others to emulate!