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Orchestral Music Review

UNCSO Pulls out the Stops

October 19, 2004 - Chapel Hill, NC:

To provide a measure of context for readers whose musical interests center on what some hope will be "America's next great orchestra," CVNC has been visiting our region's university-based and community ensembles this season - and will continue to do so.

On October 19, the large ensemble built at UNC by Professor Tonu Kalam made its 2004-5 debut. It plays in Hill Hall, birthplace of the NC Symphony, and it's considerably larger than the now-state-supported band was when it made its debut there, back in 1932. Chances are its members didn't feel like sardines in a tight tin, as the current crop of UNC players surely did. This year, there are 76 string players in the published roster, plus 37 other musicians, bringing the total to 113. For Hill, that's a whole lot of people. But people alone do not an orchestra make, and it's been most helpful to have had Kalam at the helm over the long haul. He's a fine program builder and an outstanding orchestra trainer, too, and his skills were constantly evident during this opening program of music by two Russian composers and by Edward Elgar.

The concert began with the "Procession of the Nobles" from Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada . There were no notes or introductory comments, and the work is well enough known, from pops concerts in bygone days. But folks lacking total recall of dates might have wondered which Mlada was featured, for there are at least two. The first was one of those composite things the Russians seem to have liked so much, with contributions from R-K and his pals Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and the ballet composer Minkus. The Mlada that was completed by R-K all by himself came some 18 years later, and it was from this 1880 one that the stirring concert opener was lifted. The sound of the orchestra was impressive, and not just the massed strings - the music is big and bold and grand, and it received a big, bold and grand reading.

There was more of the same in Prokofiev's Lt. Kijè Suite, Op. 60, given without the optional baritone part. The original score, apparently unpublished, was for a film project that did not reach fruition, but the Suite given here achieved considerable popularity, and two songs were also issued, as Op. 60bis. The star in this performance was David Suchoff, whose on- and off-stage trumpet (cornet) playing was spectacular, but there were many other outstanding solo bits, which collectively demonstrated that the UNCSO consists of some brilliant artists. Alas, listening pleasure was marred to some degree by folks who stumbled in during the performance - some of whom were later to stumble out, too. The policy of barring the doors and locking and latching them may not please the fire marshall, but perhaps it should be considered.

The grand finale was a big, lush, and overall impressive reading of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. This was given recently at Duke, but there's no organ in Baldwin Auditorium. There is a real one in Hill, and W. Sands Hobgood was on hand to reinforce the finale of the piece with comforting rumbles. But before we got to that loud and fast ending there was much to admire. Kalam paced the work wonderfully, leaving little space between the variations. The rich low strings provided a solid floor long before the organ came into play, and the strengths of the winds and brass were at once reassuring and remarkable since - as we've been noting in commentaries on some other regional orchestras - Kalam and the UNCSO are obliged to rebuild, to a certain extent, at the start of every academic year. Some passages were a bit blurred, but the sweep of the performance and its overall excellence seemed to catch up the players and the audience, too, and at the end there was a huge ovation from the substantial crowd. (For excellent notes on the Elgar, readers may wish to request a copy of the Duke SO's 10/6 program booklet, annotated by Ian Carlos Han.)

The fact that it was free was, for some, just icing on the cake. Much more important is the fact that "the majors" don't tour much anymore, so if music lovers hereabouts want to hear big orchestras on a regular basis, the college and university-based groups are, for all practical purposes, the only choices. Beyond that, of course, are the educational and performance opportunities these groups offer their members, who come - in this case - from UNC's Department of Music, from the rest of the university, and from the community. If we were limited to just the pro bands, think of the loss to music!

The UNCSO will participate in a big new music concert on November 19 and will offer its spring program on April 28.