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The Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts remains one of the most attractive halls in the state of North Carolina, visually and especially acoustically. As such it is a blessing to the many students who come to know it as their musical home, setting a high standard and modeling expectations for future performance sites.
Comprised of roughly equal parts high school and college students and reinforced by a dozen graduate students, the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra, composed of some 70 musicians, filled the stage on this evening before Easter. They appropriately played the Grand Russian Easter Overture, Opus 36, the last of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's three orchestral essays; the other two are the Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34 and Scheherezade, all three written in an explosion of creative energy in 1887-88. Music Director Christopher James Lees conducted the entire concert with a firm and buoyant hand while the student ensemble rose brilliantly to the challenge of the complex Russian score. Much of the melodic material of that colorful opening work is based on Russian Orthodox liturgical hymns which, like their Gregorian counterparts, are modal and of irregular metric construction. As a result they give a particular flavor to the writing and lead to an exotic Eastern quality and a musical notation in unusual meters such as 5/2, 2/1 and 3/1. There is some confusion over the tempo of the introduction, some conductors (including Maestro Lees) choosing to streamline the long introduction by doubling the tempo of the printed metronome marking (quarter = 80). Nonetheless, the results were spectacular and the many solos outstanding, especially the plaintive hymn given to the second (!) trombone, touchingly played by Max Goodman, and the lovely poetic arpeggios of concertmaster Yasha Borodetsky and principal flute Sarah Mitchener.
Invented by the Belgian Adolph Sax in the 1840s, the saxophone is a brass instrument with a reed, effectively combining the power of the brass family with the smooth agility of the woodwinds. Andrew Hasher, a college senior and one of the winners of the UNCSA's 2017 Concerto Competition chose to play the modernistic Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra (1949) by the French composer and conductor, Henri Tomasi (1901-1971).
The opening of the concerto is mysterious and harmonically ambiguous while secretive sounds emanate from the English horn and muted French horn, yielding to the saxophone, who takes over the melancholy introduction. A jaunty Allegro follows in a 5/4 meter which dominates the entire movement, even the long cadenza which is played over a harp ostinato backed by the shimmer of a roll on the suspended cymbal.
The second movement (Giration - Allegro et largo) is a high-energy movement demanding high precision from not only the soloist, but all the woodwinds, especially the very difficult and rapid passages given to the clarinets. Hasher was superb throughout the concerto, but I was most touched by the liquid tone of his legato playing, smooth and expressive.
After a lengthy intermission, we were treated to the performance of one of the public's favorite concertos, the First Piano Concerto by P. I. Tchaikovsky, nominally in B-flat minor, played by the other winner of the concerto competition, Jacob Wang, a high school senior. Although I am also fond of the other two Tchaikovsky concertos, it is always a pleasure to hear the First, especially when played with the verve and enthusiasm displayed by young Wang. Except for the bobbled opening horn declaration, the performance was a fine one, well-balanced and technically excellent. I was especially impressed by Wang's smooth playing of the ultra-rapid counterpoint in the slow movement's merry dip into the circus atmosphere (prestissimo).
The UNCSA's School of Music appears to be very successful in its recruiting tactics, if one can judge by the size of the double bass section – 10 players on stage for this concert; what a pity the viola section can't convert some of those basses to violas.