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Guest conductor Joseph Young towered over the 80-piece orchestra that filled the stage at the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for a performance of the Essay No. 2, Op. 17, composed by Samuel Barber in 1942. Lasting a scant dozen minutes, it is a great work for young musicians, giving major solos to each woodwind instrument and culminating in a powerful chorale. Our visiting young maestro was athletic, with powerful gestures, used to great advantage in the Barber. In a brief verbal introduction, Young alluded to the war-like moments in the Essay the creation of which coincided with the entrance of the United States into World War II.
Winner of the UNCSA Concerto Competition in the spring of 2018, Juan Antonio Rodriguez Díaz treated the large audience to a spectacular performance of Mozart's only surviving Bassoon Concerto, in B-flat (one of possibly as many as five). Strapped into a harness that bore the instrument's weight (nearly seven pounds) and balancing the folded 8-foot "bundle of sticks" with his fingertips, Rodriguez was deft and dazzling as a player. With a rich, dark, baritone tone, he astounded us with his virtuosic and nimble staccato passages. Especially impressive were his cadenzas, the first one long, ending in a dialogue between high petulant pleas and the comic low, terse responses, as well as several others, interjected between sections of the Rondo (third movement). Relinquishing his baton, Maestro Young conducted the concerto with a slightly reduced orchestra. The horns, playing in high B-flat transpositions, were a bit loud, but the ensemble playing was excellent.
Arguably one of Beethoven's most frequently played symphonies, the Seventh, in A, Op. 92, is an energetic work, actually written without a slow movement (although the second movement, marked Allegretto, used to be played "Lento Lamentoso"). Happily, Young's tempos were very close to Beethoven's metronome indications, although the multiple "Trio" sections of the Scherzo were considerably slower than marked.
Starting with a slow introduction (pioneered by Haydn and adopted by Mozart, Schubert, and by Beethoven in his 1st, 2nd, 4th and 7th symphonies), the balance was good, allowing us to hear the canon between first and second violins clearly. Unfortunately, the elusive second canon (separated by only two beats instead of two measures) was obscured by loud brass playing. But the cheeky repeated note figure that culminates in the flute statement of the main theme was spot on! Later in the first movement, as the music approached its climax, I found myself wishing for more contrast between the spiky shortened 6/8 ("Rik-i-ty, rik-i-ty") and the full-valued contrasting figure ("Rum-ba-dum, rum-ba-dum").
The second movement, properly played as an Allegretto, was superb, even if Beethoven's own bowing was ignored, as it often is. Also often ignored was the indication of tenuto ["held"] on the first quarter note of each phrase, repeated many times by the insistent composer!
The Finale was full of "brio" and inspired the young musicians to give extra energy to an already almost frenetic evening, a feast of extraversion. The prophetic fourth measure (dotted eighth plus sixteenth and quarter-note pattern) of the incessant main theme was developed into its full potential in the mid-section, giving it an uncanny resemblance to the opening of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.
Maestro Young conducted most of the symphony by memory, with the score lying closed in front of him. He acknowledged the enthusiastic applause by beckoning the orchestra section by section, eliciting cheers from the many students as their favorites were featured. Young is one of several guest conductors the UNCSA orchestra will feature this season.