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For a few minutes on the evening of April 4, during pre-concert remarks by NC Symphony President and CEO David Chambless Worters and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser, one almost got the impression that people were sad to see Memorial Hall closing for renovations. That impression was, mercifully, transitory. Gutting the place should help, and if the witchcraft that is the "science" of acoustics turns out as expected, the results will position the venerable hall for many more years of service. (If it doesn't, well, there will at least be more bathrooms when the place reopens....)
The concert by the NC Symphony consisted of a fine program that wasn't given anywhere else in the Triangle. This used to be the norm but is now rare. There was no imported soloist, either. We don't get to hear the NCS in Chapel Hill, its birthplace, often enough-that is both curse and blessing, given the quirky hall and its attendant discomforts (and the frequent intrusion of noise from outside, too)-but it's always a treat to revisit the campus, especially on cool nights (Memorial will be air-conditioned when it reopens), and this was a very special evening. The music began with a canzon for brass by Giovanni Gabrieli, given by eight crack players (the term is positive-there were no cracked notes!) arrayed four and four on opposite sides of the stage. In retrospect, the selection may have been a sop to the horns and brasses because they didn't figure in the next piece, which was Vaughan Williams' familiar Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, not often heard live in this neck of the woods. As in the opening number, the players were in top form, and this was an exceptional performance. All the principals were heard to good advantage in their various solo and small ensemble bits, and the work is scored in a way that brings some of the backdeskers into unusual prominence, too. We've rarely if ever heard a reading of this score that was so beautifully detailed-there was solid phrasing, astounding definition (helped to a great degree by outstanding balance), and far more texture than one can discern in recordings, even when played over state-of-the-art equipment. The rendition thus spoke volumes about the importance of live concert performances. And it spoke volumes, too, about the programming skill of the conductor, William Henry Curry, who without too many people noticing managed to inject tunes by roughly contemporaneous composers-G. Gabrieli and Tallis-into the mix in the first 30 minutes of the concert.
There was to have been more English fare, but in place of a Suite from Walton's Wise Virgins (although we're Tar Heel alums, we're not making this up!) the Maestro turned to the Preludes to Acts I and III of Wagner's Lohengrin . This was a rare event for an orchestra that should play more music by the oft'-upbraided and maligned German Romantic master. Admittedly, Lohengrin is "safer" than, say, Rienzi; and there was nothing in the exceptionally beautiful readings that could have offended any caring, thinking music lover. The strings continued the splendid work they began in the Vaughan Williams, and the readings-of the slow, stately Act I Prelude and the buoyant, upbeat curtain-raiser for Act III-were as close to ideal as we are likely to hear in Central North Carolina in the foreseeable future. (The reason for the shift in music was economic, and there will be more of this in the weeks and months to come: the Walton isn't in the NCS' library, but the Wagner is, so it cost less to play it....)
After a long intermission (occasioned by a medical emergency in the audience), the concert resumed with the celebrated "Good Friday Spell" from Wagner's Parsifal. It's timely, on the heels of Easter (when performances of the opera are often mounted), and it was again a rare pleasure to hear our NC Symphony play this beautiful music under such good leadership.
The evening ended with a glowing, stately reading of Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony. Reformation Sunday is normally the last Sunday in October, timed to coincide with the anniversary of Martin Luther's tacking of those famous 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door back on Halloween(!) in 1517, so this performance wasn't timed to coincide with the Lutheran calendar, but it was musically appropriate because, in addition to quoting Luther's "Ein feste Burg," the Symphony makes copious use of the Dresden Amen, which also figures in the "Good Friday Spell." The Mendelssohn was indeed stately, and at times we wondered if the tempo indications in the program-Allegro vivace is the indication for the second movement and the second part of the finale-were incorrect (they weren't), but the tempos worked in this case, and one of the great advantages of the more leisurely pacing (which never sagged in terms of its energy or intensity) was that many internal beauties, generally glossed over, emerged with breathtaking clarity. (If our readers will indulge a personal note, we had the pleasure of sitting with Maxine Swalin, widely viewed as the Mother of the NC Symphony, and were amused by her comment on the Mendelssohn, whispered between the first and second movements. "Very Protestant," she opined!)
A cynic could look at this program and complain about the presence of six compositions, five of which are fairly short. A cynic might have missed the routine overture-concerto-symphony formula other CVNCers have discussed of late. A cynic might not have shown up in the first place, given the absence of a big-name star. Music lovers were present, however, and those music lovers responded warmly to the concert's many delights. And it's a fact that, given the right kind of leadership, all we need is our orchestra and its own resident star artists. At the risk of repetition of the word too often in the same issue of our journal, we also say, Bravo!
P.S. The next concert in the Chapel Hill series - the last of the season - will be given in the new Bible Church, where at least there's plenty of parking. It will be conducted by Gerhardt Zimmermann, rather than Grzegorz Nowak, whose visit here has been postponed due to the economy. As of this writing, the guest soloist - violinist Kyoko Takewzawa - and the program remain intact.