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The Village Orchestra appears to be unique among the Triangle's community symphonic ensembles in that its membership is entirely amateur--there are no paid principals. Its players come from all walks of life and represent the community in all the requisite demographic ways. As in other all- (or mostly-) volunteer groups, the Village Orchestra's artists pour their hearts into their work, consistently demonstrating that "love" is a component part of "amateur." We've followed the fortunes of the band from time to time since it was formed some 18 years ago and recall with pleasure (and some amazement) performances led by Ruth Johnsen, violinist Edgar Alden (in some of which former UNC choral director Joel Carter served as percussionist!), and Donald Oehler, the ensemble's current artistic leader. Oehler's absence this semester led the group to engage as its guest conductor the distinguished Andrew McAfee, who also directs the Philharmonic Association's Triangle Youth Symphony and is the NC Symphony's Principal Horn. According to several members of the 60-person orchestra, he cut the Chapel Hillians no slack as he demanded new levels of discipline and professionalism from the group. On December 12, in Hill Hall, McAfee and the orchestra strutted their stuff, and the results were often bracing. The program began with Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," which is hardly a piece of cake - we're heard more than a few professional groups fall flat in this highly atmospheric score. The orchestra's principal flute and other woodwinds made fine contributions, guest harpist Emily Laurance was her customary reliable self, the group's 31 strings, headed by Concertmaster Mark Furth, sounded rich and full and generally projected a nice sense of ensemble, and if the piece at times was a bit too loud, the balances were nonetheless consistently good.
NC Symphony virtuosa Kimberly Van Pelt was the dazzling soloist in Mozart's Third Horn Concerto. She's one of the NCS' most active and engaged members, one who turns up all over the place and never fails to impress. Aside from her stellar playing, her mere presence may have helped elevate the orchestra's already good standards of performance in this marvelous work. As William T. Walker notes in a review of the UNCG SO elsewhere in this issue, Mozart can separate the sheep from the goats. Here and there, the Villagers sounded a bit tentative, and there was a touch of rawness in the upper strings from time to time, but overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable reading. The last movement took off like a house afire but the ensemble never flagged and at the end the soloist and the orchestra received warm applause from the assembled crowd.
The finale was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, which can separate sheep from goats, too. The tempi were generally slower than usual, which allowed some of the inner voices to emerge in ways that were appealing, more often than not. In this reading and elsewhere during the program the orchestra gave refreshing attention to dynamics, so there was plenty of light and shade. A false entry or two and a few relatively minor ensemble lapses did not appreciably detract from the overall success of the reading.
On the podium, McAfee uses great economy of motion--he's neither a dancer nor a showman. This, too, proved refreshing. We'll look forward to the opportunity to hear him conduct again.
The printed program contained the titles of the works given but omitted information on the movements, leading to scattered applause at the end of the first part of the Tchaikovsky. There were good program notes by an anonymous writer, and the roster revealed the names of many people who are actively involved - as participants and patrons - in other musical organizations here. The pulse of a community is reflected in its musical organizations, and this concert showed that Chapel Hill is alive and well.