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Triangle music lovers are too parochial, too seldom venturing beyond their local turfs in Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, not to mention the Triad. To savor the rich smorgasbord of music regularly served in the region, one must think outside the box. With visits by orchestras increasingly rare, that may mean slipping across the state border. No visa is required! It is an easy drive from Durham or the Greensboro area to the pleasant town of Danville, Virginia, a station on Frederick Delius' slow return to England after his failed orange farming in Florida. Perhaps his tutelage helped foster one of the more vital and diverse audiences for the arts that we have encountered. This is the 50th season of the Danville Concert Association, which presents an impressive series in several venues. Past highlights have been the Eroica Piano Trio, the Spoleto USA Chamber Music Tour, and the Hungarian Symphony of Pécs, which made a very successful return visit January 9, in the pleasant acoustics of the George Washington High School Auditorium. The guest conductor for this tour was Philippe de Chalendar. Perhaps his early years as a cellist laid the foundation for his elegant and subtle attention to string phrasing.
Two rare Hungarian compositions proved to be real treats. Bela Bartók's Hungarian Sketches, Sz.97, subtitled "An Evening with the Szekelys - Hungarians of Eastern Transylvania," was an engaging transcription of several earlier piano pieces. The fast and slow sections of "An Evening in the Village" open with wistful clarinet solos, with the themes taken up after each fast section by flute and oboe, in turn. The fast "Bear Dance" has a driving rhythm and an orchestral raspberry from the trombone. These were from Ten Easy Pieces. The melodic and sad "Dirge Melody," originally for piano, was aptly named. "Slightly Tipsy" elicited laughter with its comic off-beat irregular rhythm and wonderfully drunken bassoon. From For Children, Bk. II, came the last, "Swineherd Dance" (No. 42), with its evocation of droning bagpipes and exploitation of the highest violin register.
According to John Weissmann, in New Grove I , Leo Weiner was "a composer of highly accomplished technique. essentially a Romantic. oppos(ing) the innovations of Stravinsky and Bartók" but "shar(ing) the nationalist concerns of Bartók and Kodály." He "developed a style of clarity and balance, with a command of the orchestra that is most evident in the transcriptions." All these virtues were present in spades in the "Divertimento No. 1 on old Hungarian Dances," Op. 20 (1934), originally written for piano. The dance movements work up folk materials that had been sought out by the composer in the Ethnographical Museum's collection. The treatment is very idiomatic, with the full resources of the strings exploited, a rich variety of irregular meters, a wide range of dynamics, and the most diverse use of plucked strings I have ever heard in one work. All string orchestras ought to take up Weiner's Op. 20, which could also be arranged and used by string quartets as a source for lively encores.
Based upon programming elsewhere on the Pécs Orchestra's winter tour, I expected to hear either the A Major, K.488, or the C Minor, K.491, piano concerto of Mozart. Instead, guest pianist Makiko Hirata performed another less often heard early Romantic work, Chopin's first essay in the form, the Second Piano Concerto in F Minor, Op. 21. Hirata has technique to spare, crystal clear articulation and a beautiful tone. Most important, she presented Chopin's musical lines without a hint of false sentimentality, each phrase seeming to come straight from the heart without artifice. The first movement was excellent, and I almost forgot to breathe during the second, which was a jewel. Hirata is an exciting player but is still at an early stage in her concert career, and this performance came at the outset of her current tour. She had a brief memory lapse in the first third of the last movement - a brief bit of plausible floundering - and this unsettling experience may have been responsible for a few smudged notes later. At intermission, a self-produced CD of the early piano music of Ravel was offered for sale. The beautifully recorded sound will be a fine souvenir of a very promising talent.
The concert ended with a dynamic and vital reading of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. This being one of their first concerts together on this tour, there were a few minor flubs along the way, but Chalendar has a superior over-all vision of the piece. Too many conductors concentrate on the energy and drive of each movement and fail to subordinate each as part of the whole. This was one of those rare performances in which the last movement didn't seem an anticlimax. Bravo.
The concert opened with a stylish and witty Rossini's Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri. The crescendo was unusually well done. Throughout the warmth and richness of the orchestra's strings belied their small number: 8-8-5-5-3.