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Orchestral Music Review

Kalam Leads UNC Symphony in Remarkable Performances

October 10, 2006 - Chapel Hill, NC:

With UNC students on campus a scant six-weeks, maestro Tonu Kalam prepared his young musicians for a remarkable performance on Tuesday evening at the Beasley-Curtis Auditorium in Memorial Hall. The program opened with Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky as edited and orchestrated by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Many readers will recall the images Walt Disney saw in the music from the 1940 film, Fantasia. The violins begin with a perfectly timed trill out of which leaps the terrifying brass satanic creatures of the night. All the way through this first part of the piece I was struck by the precision of the ensemble, the balance through the crescendos and the general quality of sound as a whole. As the gong of the church bell disperses the raucous demons, the violins establish a wonderful quiet and the solo clarinet and flute usher in a sensuous dawn. While there were moments where seasoned musicians might have captured more of the finesse of the score, there was nothing to distract attention from an outstanding performance.

Next on the program we were treated to the premiere performance of Lynn Glassock's Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (2006). Glassock is Professor of Music at UNC where he teaches percussion and conducts the UNC Percussion Ensemble. He has composed several pieces, won awards, his music has been widely performed, and he is broadly recognized for his expertise with the marimba.

The Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra is set in three movements in traditional sonata form. The first movement marked Moderato features the marimba. The second movement is slow and features the vibraphone. The third movement, Allegro, again features the marimba. It was a piece this reviewer would have preferred hearing two or three more times before making any assessments. This much can be said after one hearing. It was unique. I could not identify the sound as resembling anything else I have heard. It is earnest, not trivial music, though not without moments of joy and fun. Much of it was quite dissonant, but lyrical in nature. It avoids overt jazz references, as much music for marimba and vibraphone tends to do. It was complex in its thematic development and here I must demur until further hearings or study, which would be a most welcome endeavor. The solos were performed by the composer who made extremely complex passages sound easy, natural, and impressive. The orchestra was on the mark too; well prepared and confident with what I am sure was not easy music.

The program closed with Shostakovitch's Sixth Symphony. Enigmatic and unusually structured, it begins with a long Largo section. No one but Shostakovitch can wring such intense pathos out of the string section, which he balances with brass and woodwind interventions. Rarely does he use the full orchestra with all members playing at once. But when he does, it seams the whole world weeps. At times I felt this movement could have been a model for a concerto for orchestra with his treatment of the various instrumental sections in turns.

The second movement, Allegro, was of a different order, brief, highly developed and finding almost a celebratory theme at times. The third movement, Presto, was a madcap and wild escape from the pathos of the first movement, perhaps even some sarcasm here and there. During this period of his career, with Stalin still alive, Shostakovitch could not afford to be too specific in his music and, of course could not verbally describe the details and meanings even if he wanted to.

The orchestra was really warmed up by this time and seemed to really warm up to this piece. As far as I could tell the performance was nearly as well done as possible. All the characteristic Shostakovitch harmonic progressions, the colorful instrumental combinations, his love of racing melodic lines played as fast as possible: all of it was there and well done indeed.

The UNC Symphony is a fully appointed orchestra with 20 first and 20 second violins, 14 vilolas, 14 cellos, and 10 basses, plus a full compliment of woodwinds, brass and percussion. Key positions are filled by UNC music majors, but many of the others are not. The secret of the excellent sound this group makes, I am convinced, lies with Kalam and is shared by the superb staff of performance, music history and theory instructors at UNC. Kalam, born of Estonian parents, educated at Harvard, UC-Berkeley and Curtis, is Music Director and Conductor of the Longview Symphony Orchestra in Texas. He also performs regularly as a pianist and chamber musician. To have put together this program in just about six weeks is amazing and leaves me eager to hear what will be done later in the year as the Symphony gets used to playing together, and develops their talents and skills even more.