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Music Review

Don Martin's NC Mozart Festival

March 20, 2002 - Raleigh, NC:

Two overlapping music festivals in Raleigh - the NC Computer Music Festival at NCSU (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) and one devoted entirely to the music of Mozart, held at Cardinal Gibbons High School - presented challenging choices to area music lovers during the first part of the week of March 18. On the surface, overlaps such as these should present no problems, in part because the audiences are, presumably, different, but the fact is that, in these cases, both events were major. Less than wonderful attendance should give planners of future festivals pause. We remain convinced that some sort of central scheduling organization with access to a long-range events calendar could help planners and potential audiences alike.

The Mozart festival was the brainchild of Donald Martin, former NCS clarinetist and longtime director of the NC Chamber Players. His latest undertaking was not presented under the auspices of the latter, but the artists he assembled echoed the NCCP's membership in that they included key NC Symphony players and other top-rank area instrumentalists. The three-concert festival was based at Cardinal Gibbons High School because that is where Martin currently works. The small auditorium seems to seat around 450 people and was ideal for the concert we heard therein. There is a low platform for the performers that juts into the hall. No proscenium impedes the dispersal of sound. The lighting is a bit harsh--the fluorescent fixtures should be replaced during the next upgrade--but otherwise the players seemed content and the sound in the room itself was excellent.

Due to the Computer Music Festival we missed the opening concert, but thanks to an invitation from Andrew McAfee we were able to hear the program during its final rehearsal, held in the school's band room. On that occasion, the largest works were rehearsed first, to allow players not needed in the smaller ones to escape. The order of the actual concert was different. Martin conducted the Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro with considerable style and the results were bracing. One of the reasons for this was that the ensemble itself was both small and polished. The dozen strings were headed by Belinda Swanson, and the winds and brasses were strongly staffed by some distinguished players. A movement from Eine kleine Nachtmusik preceded a performance of the First Horn Concerto by McAfee, whose playing was, as is almost always the case, exceptional. He'd be even more of a standout if the rest of his regular NCS horn section weren't so exceptional; one of his key assistants, Kimberly Van Pelt, also participated in the festival (but not, of course, in the Horn Concerto). The finale was a truly complete performance of the celebrated Symphony in G Minor, K.550, conducted by McAfee. He joked that it was a short program, so every repeat was observed. The rehearsal went so well that despite the fact that the work was much longer than usual, it didn't seem overdone in the least. As we've noted in other columns, McAfee is a fine conductor. His work on this occasion, with the Village Orchestra of Chapel Hill last semester, and with the Triangle Youth Orchestra on an ongoing basis, has been and is commendable. (His next concert with the last-named ensemble is scheduled for April 30.)

It's always informative to attend rehearsals, and there are many opportunities to do so, including the NC Symphony's regular "Open Rehearsal" Series. One can hear the music come together, see how repetition leads to tighter ensemble, observe how the winds and brasses are adjusted so as not to swamp the strings, and witness the overall effects of teamwork. The concertgoer's customary view of the conductor isn't frontal, so sitting with the back-deskers can be eye opening. In this instance, our perch--beside the timpanist--gave us a whole new perspective on the meaning of "balance," too!

We missed the second concert, which included the "Kegelstadt" Trio, arias from two operas, and four choral works, sung by the Cardinal Gibbons Chorale. We report this program because it offered yet another view of Mozart's huge output, a cross-section of which the festival offered.

The grand finale, presented on March 20, featured two wind serenades--No. 12, in C Minor, K.388, and No. 11, in E Flat, K.375. The players in both were oboists Carrie Shull and A.J. Ikner, clarinetists Martin and Fred Jacobowitz, hornists Van Pelt and James Edwards, and bassoonists Chris Ullfers and Susan Cummings. There weren't many problems with the printed program, but the descriptions of the movements of these could have been a bit more complete. In the first one, the Menuetto normally includes the tag, "in canone," and the appearance of the first menuetto in the E Flat Serenade (there are two, bracketing the Adagio) was omitted in the program, causing (for those who were looking at the programs) momentary confusion. That said, we'll fuss--as other CVNCers have done of late--about the total lack of notes on the works presented during this festival. Especially since the festival was presented at a school, we think that the absence of notes that can be taken home and read (or re-read) later is a problem, and not only on this occasion.

The performances, which were conducted by Charles Dwayne Wilson, Director of Instrumental Studies at Campbell University, were generally excellent, although the tempi of the first serenade seemed a bit sluggish to this listener. The playing was generally outstanding, however (absent a few minor problems with the second oboe), and the excellent acoustics facilitated the audience's enjoyment. The use of a conductor for what are basically chamber works seemed a bit strange but it is in fact not unheard of, and Wilson's presence doubtless helped ensure solid ensemble. On one hand, it was a real treat to hear two of Mozart's great wind serenades on one program, but in retrospect it might have been a bit much, so if we are blessed with similar concerts during the next installment, we'd suggest that perhaps one per evening would be sufficient. There will be a next time--Martin told us he's planning another round next season, perhaps in November. Stay tuned.