Plenty of student musician's relatives and friends filled seats of the Beasley-Curtis Auditorium of Memorial Hall on the last day of Fall classes on the campus of the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Music lovers were offered an intriguing and eclectic menu combining three colorful short works as appetizers for one of the centerpieces of the violin concerto repertoire. These musical riches were played by the UNC Symphony Orchestra, which is comprised of mostly students, but also includes a few alumni and community locals. The works were conducted under the baton of music director Tonu Kalam. Solo string fireworks were dished out by faculty violinist Nicholas DiEugenio.
Memories of cartoons from the golden age of animation (The Barnyard Concert, 1930, Porky in the North Woods, and The Village Smithy of 1943) haunted me as I listened to the stirring Overture to Poet and Peasant (1846) by Franz von Suppé (1819-95). The massed brass choirs brought plenty of brilliance and weight to the opening. The strings delivered plenty of agility and warmth to the "chase music" portion, so oft appropriated by animators, and rhythmic pulse to the waltz episodes. The core delight of this overture is its mini-cello concerto, superbly spun out by principal cellist Devin Cornacchino, often in dialogue with the delightful harp playing of Naomi Sutherland.
A beautifully paced and phrased performance of "Vltava" (The Moldau) from Má Vlast (1874) by Bedřich Smetana (1824-84) followed. The exquisite opening pair of flutes was enchantingly played by co-principals No. 1 Megan Golliher and No. 2 Katherine Gora Combs. The tune was taken up by principal clarinet Andrew Huang and Michael Mallory. Delicate ppp string pizzicatos were graduated superbly. The cello and viola sections brought appropriate expansiveness and weight to the evocation of the river's widest breadth. Like a delicate, subtle spice, the haunting tinkle of Avery Lane's triangle was never lost in the full orchestra. Harpist Grace Monteleone made fine contributions.
Conductor Kalam announced an unusual performance innovation for the next work after intermission, On the Nature of Daylight by British composer Max Richter (b. 1966). He is described in Kalam's note as "a producer, arranger, pianist, collaborator, and remixer besides composing original works and film scores. This selection was a track from the second of his eight solo albums, The Blue Notebooks (2004)." It has been widely used to accompany films. Kalam said the unique tonal colors of Richter's often minimalist score would fit almost seamlessly with the concluding Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). He asked applause be withheld and only time for the orchestra strings to attach their mutes before the concerto would be played.
Much like in works of Phillip Glass, Richter's six-minute work featured string choirs playing repeated figures beginning with the violas and cellos followed by second violins and first violins, in turn with patterns differing in tempo. The work's shimmering panoply of color complimented the overall atmosphere of the Sibelius.
DiEugenio quietly took up the solo position during the closing notes of the Richter and raised his violin to play the Sibelius as musicians muted the strings of their instruments. Kalam led a superbly balanced orchestral accompaniment throughout. DiEugenio's sweet violin tone emerged from the cool haze of massed ppp strings. Over the course of the mini-cadenza and the big, developmental cadenza mid-movement, DiEugenio displayed a full armory of technical fireworks, superb intonation, a full, refined tone, and nimble multiple stops. The depth of his interpretative insight was revealed over the course of the meditative slow movement. Both soloist and orchestra were unleashed in the finale which Sir Donald Francis Tovey described as "a polonaise for polar bears." DiEugenio's powerful tone and colorful palette were unabated while the student musicians gave their all. The four horns were excellent while the violas and cellos produced rich, warm tones. Woodwinds were strong with fine contributions from clarinetist Andrew Huang, flutists Katherine Combs and Megan Golliher, oboists Jack Livingston and Corwin Carr. Charlie Mace's timpani playing was as commanding as any I have heard.