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Since the members of the North Carolina Symphony travel all over the state and play in venues ranging from state-of-the-art concert halls like Meymandi to high-school gymnasiums, it would be safe to say that they are very adaptable. For concert-goers who are used to hearing what is arguably this area's greatest cultural resource in an atmosphere that compliments their excellence, the May 9 concert at the Chapel Hill Bible Church may have come as somewhat of an incongruity. The good news is that it is not Memorial Hall on the UNC campus; the bad news is that it is not Memorial Hall on the UNC campus-which is undergoing a long overdue renovation. All of next year's concerts in the Chapel Hill series will be held at the Chapel Hill Bible Church and like the promos say-there is great and accessible parking. Unfortunately, the positive features end there. This is a brand new, spacious facility, and the staff of the North Carolina Symphony did as much as possible to make it feel like one of the concerts in Meymandi-including a pre-concert performance in the lobby by the outstanding young violinist James Dargan. The actual performance space has a stage that barely accommodates the orchestra and that sits in the middle of a very wide room so that at least a third of the seats are beyond the boundaries of the stage. Combined with the flat, level floor, this makes sight lines very poor. The room itself is architecturally reminiscent of a tent-type structure and this does allow for a very nice acoustic.
The evening's performance involved several changes to the pre-printed winter/spring program. There was supposed to be a guest conductor but Music Director and Conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann manned the podium instead. The original program was also supposed to begin with Dances of Galanta by Zoltan Kodaly but we were instead treated to a rarely-heard performance of music from Gayane by Aram Khachaturian (1903-78). This suite includes one of those pieces that probably everyone has heard at one time but has no idea where it came from. The "Sabre Dance" is instantly recognizable and has appeared in everything from cartoons to commercials-it can probably easily be labeled as Khachaturian's greatest hit. The suite as performed in Chapel Hill contained nine movements, programmatic in nature and displaying marvelous orchestral effects. This is not profound music by any stretch, but I had a good view of Maestro Zimmermann and he was having a great time and so were many of the players. Whimsical and mainly light in mood, this was the kind of work that had many audience members moving to the music and laughing at some of the effects.
"Laughter" and "lightness" are two words that I don't think can ever be used to describe the Concerto in D Minor for Violin, Op. 47, by Jean Sibelius. This is one of the top five violin concertos of all time-fiendishly difficult, profoundly moving and majestic. The performance by violinist Kyoko Takezawa was a transcendent experience. Every possible mood, dynamic, and virtuosic technique is in this concerto and Takezawa's rendition made you forget any others you might have heard. Her phrasing and lush tone in the opening movement transported you to the rugged, cold, loneliness conjured up when thinking of Scandinavia. The second movement is a simple adagio-achingly beautifully played, with great expressiveness. The finale is a fireworks display of every conceivable violinistic technique combined with great energy and drive. The audience members rose to their feet at the conclusion and enthusiastically proclaimed their delight at a truly great performance.
Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky is a composition that has taken on a persona that the composer probably never imagined when he wrote it in 1874. This was originally written as a programmatic piano suite depicting paintings of his good friend Victor Hartmann, who died unexpectedly at the age of 39. The brilliant colors, melody and rhythms begged an orchestral treatment and over the years many have attempted such a transcription. Those who grew up in the '60s might even remember a popular version done by the rock group "Emerson, Lake & Palmer", which helped introduce deadheads and others to this grand creation. Probably the most famous edition is the one done by Maurice Ravel in 1922, who incidentally also wrote the overwrought "Bolero," a composition that is also considered a masterpiece of orchestration. The trip through the gallery begins with the "promenade theme" which is supposed to depict the strolling between paintings. This is a grand, memorable and majestic theme, and the brass, which gives the first reading, gave a spirited rendition. "The Old Castle" is another favorite-slow, solemn and beautiful. Another highlight was the beautiful articulation of the woodwinds in "The Chicks in their Shells." The orchestra gave a disciplined and accurate reading but except for the mentioned highlights there seemed to lack a feeling of involvement with the work as the performance wore on.
Finally, a word on the demographics of the audiencI sometimes joke that in addition to the wonderful music, I like to attend chamber music and orchestral concerts because at most of them I feel like I'm the youngest person in attendance. It is wonderful that many of the area retirement homes bring large groups to these concerts, but the North Carolina Symphony needs to also target the opposite end of the age spectrum. This is an old problem (no pun intended) and happens in most places, but our presenting organizations must increase their efforts to attract younger audience members in addition to their current clientele.