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Marriages are made for many reasons – for love, for convenience, by necessity, to establish lineage, and for sundry other causes, needs, whims, or fancies. In most cases, a marriage is a positive step, mutually agreed upon. And although the marriage of sentient and caring human beings often lasts a lifetime, the union of conductors and orchestras is subject to internal leverage and external pressures that can upset, shear, and even reverse the natural order that inspired them. These thoughts crossed my mind this weekend as I attended not one, but two concerts in the lovely Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Each concert presented a different orchestra and different conductors, but both featured swan songs as two conductors were stepping away from the orchestras they had led.
Friday night, May 2, the UNCSA student orchestra, directed for the three past years by James Allbritten, gave its closing concert of the season, featuring concerto competition winner Marco Núñez in Jacques Ibert's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. Not a particularly appealing concerto for the average audience, the piece certainly gave us much occasion to marvel at the sophisticated virtuosity of the flute soloist. His tone, pure and clear, is so smooth as to seem indifferently suave, and his nimble fingers never faltered!
The second half of the concert was consecrated to the Fifth Symphony, Op. 64, of Tchaikovsky, a gorgeous romantic setting of a recurring theme, a practice Tchaikovsky started early in his career (Serenade for Strings, Op. 48, and the Symphony No. 4, among others). The numbers of musicians in the string sections became manifest in their imbalance, the violas losing out. A gorgeous horn solo by departing senior Jessica Appolinario in the Andante cantabile, and fine work by the entire horn section in the constant triplet accompaniment, made this performance exceptional.
The concert started with a lively and rousing Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns which featured John Hammarback on the long exotic oboe solo which opens the work. John Beck's deft timpani made the ensuing frenzy all the more exciting.
After 20 years at UNCSA, James Allbritten* is leaving the School of Music to assume the mantle of General Director of the Piedmont Opera, where until now he has served as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor. In an impressive show of affection, Steven LaCosse, Director of the Fletcher Opera Institute, and Marilyn Taylor read testimonials from alumni, colleagues, and current students while the orchestra and voice department put on a musical skit to "So Long, Farewell" from Sound of Music. (Unlike the departure of his predecessor, Ransom Wilson, there was no parting diatribe.)
On Sunday afternoon, May 4, the Winston-Salem Symphony presented one of the most polished and entertaining concerts of the entire season, Rhapsody in Blue. Completely reversing the printed program order, the concert started with two works by Ravel: "La valse," poème chorégraphique, and Le Tombeau de Couperin.
Departing Associate Conductor Matthew Troy conducted the mysterious and beguiling "Valse" clearly and simply, without wasted gestures. The brass signaled their presence directly and powerfully and were awesome here, as throughout the concert. A brief ceremony was held at the end of the piece wherein Music Director Robert Moody gave a framed signed pair of pictures to Troy as a souvenir of his half-dozen years with the orchestra. Troy will be expanding his connection with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic as well as his guest conducting presence around the country. We wish him well!
One is used to watching the large and energetic conducting gestures of Maestro Moody – so it was a bit surprising to see the economy of gesture he used when conducting the Tombeau de Couperin – Moody the Minimalist? Be that as it may, this was a marvelous performance featuring incredible virtuosity, especially from the first oboe, English horn, and first clarinet. Warning us of a surprise, Moody left the stage at intermission while the crew set up a trap set and amplification equipment. Then out came our soloist, Tamir Hendelman, who announced in seraphic tones that the jazz trio would take Ravel's 20th century version of 18th century Couperin's music into the 21st century. And indeed, accompanied by John Beck on percussion and Matt Kendrick on bass, the orchestra treated us to an astonishing version of the first movement, expanded, of the Tombeau.
After this scintillating jewel of a performance, we waited while the stage was reset for George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Here, pianist Hendelman was everything we wanted him to be: brilliant, charming, humorous, and virtuosic. This performance really rocked! And what followed has to be (in my books) the best performance M. Moody has produced in his nine years with the Winston-Salem Symphony, a stellar and nuanced rendition of An American in Paris, directed by memory with precision and subtlety. Bravo, Maestro, your Gershwin has won me over!
The Winston-Salem Symphony program will be repeated on May 6. See the sidebar for details.
*CVNC will be featuring an interview with James Allbritten and his plans for the Piedmont Opera in the very near future.