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The star of the latest concert by the Chapel Hill Philharmonia was Cissy Yu, winner of the orchestra’s Young Artist Competition. The diminutive pianist, a freshman at East Chapel Hill High School, is a student of Wonmin Kim. She’s multi-talented, as they say – her other instrument is the violin, and she’s a member of the Mallarmé Youth Chamber Orchestra, of which the evening’s guest conductor, Yoram Youngerman, is the music director.
Mendelssohn was the composer of her contest piece, and those who have come to expect – with some dread – the regular appearance of the Violin Concerto in E Minor on almost every concerto competition concert were given a break, for this time it was the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 1. It was given a splendid performance that sparkled from start to finish, prompting at least one member of the audience to gush (at intermission), “Ah, to be so young, so talented – and so thin!” In fact, her playing seemed far beyond her (15) years: the reading had good phrasing, fine dynamic control, and good interaction with the accompanying ensemble. The orchestra played with considerable sensitivity, too, helping make this too-short selection one of the highlights of the evening.
The concert began with Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” That UNC’s Hill Hall is a problem venue is a given – comparatively few artists and ensembles have managed to sound really wonderful in it, and things played too loudly can be painful to endure. There was a lot of sound from the gong, bass drum, timpani, and brass that played this familiar Copland thing. Thus there was some relief when the strings of the orchestra took over for the Third Suite from Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances. As Mark Furth’s fine (and illustrated) program notes reminded us, these really are ancient airs and dances, done up with reasonable sensitivity by a fine 20th-century Italian. He was hardly alone in his commitment to old music and his belief that cloaking it in contemporary orchestral garb would help lead modern listeners to the promised land, or something like that. This Suite No. 3 is in the view of many listeners the best of the three. It was at times something of a challenge for the players, who slipped in and out of the several grooves during its 20-minute run.
The concert ended with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, one of the most wonderful works in captivity. Here, too, the Chapel Hill Philharmonia seemed challenged from time to time, despite Youngerman’s keen, attentive, animated, and enthusiastic leadership. The slow movement was the best, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the other sections were too fast. Actually it was in part imbalances within the sections and then among and between the several sections, too, that led to some of the issues made manifest in some murky playing and unclear thematic lines. The crowd loved it nonetheless, rewarding the 90-some players with a standing ovation and sustained applause.
This community resource will return next season under the leadership of its regular conductor and music director, Donald Oehler.
It would be nice to think that the major issues that make attending concerts in Hill Hall so challenging will have been addressed by then, but don’t count on it. Parking at UNC is so terrible that several people of our acquaintance have sworn off going there, period, while others won’t consider Friday concerts or anything running in competition with sporting events. (Duke can be a problem for parking, and lots of folks resent paying to park there, too – especially for, say, those free organ recitals in Duke Chapel, but at least there are enough places nearby – unlike UNC….) And then, once one gets into Hill Hall Auditorium, the Music Department’s primary performance venue, one remembers the other reason to avoid it from May through September – it’s not air-conditioned, which means the hallowed department might as well not use its own hall for five months out of twelve. (On this occasion, there must have been at least a 15-degree differential between the hall and the lobby – which is cooled….) You’d think that with all the money UNC spends on arts and culture, bringing in artists and ensembles by the bus- and truck-load, someone would scrape up enough money to address creature comforts – for performers and audiences alike – in Hill Hall!