A standing-room audience roasted in stifling Hill Hall on October 1, 2002, while listening to the University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, whose performance was hotter than the sauna-like atmosphere. Only two works were on the menu, an early Verdi overture and a beloved middle Beethoven symphony. The program was played without intermission.

After the disaster of Giuseppe Verdi’s second opera, Un Giorno di Regno (which received its American premiere at a National Opera Company production at nearby Duke in 1978), the composer was determined never to write another opera. He tossed aside an offered libretto to Nabucco , but his eye was drawn to the text “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Go, my thought, on wings of gold”), which became the great chorus of the Hebrew captives in Babylon and an anthem of the growing Risorgimento movement, the Italian Nationalist coalition. Andrew Porter quoted the poet Giuseppe Giusti in the New Grove : “the Nabucco chorus of exiles yearning for their homeland… gave rise to the first political demonstrations that signaled the reawakening of Lombardy and the Vento.” According to Julian Budden. in The Operas of Verdi , the Overture was written at the last moment, at Verdi’s brother-in law’s suggestion, and is “mostly a free potpourri of themes taken from the opera.” The chorale-like “opening idea… was new and portray(ed)… the central thesis of the opera, the steadfastness of the Hebrews in the face of persecution.” Much of the Overture is perfunctory, with stock orchestral gestures. One section is “built on ‘Il maledetta,’ the chorus where the Hebrews curse Ismaele” for freeing their hostage, Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter. “After a return of the chorale theme, this time a primitive variation on ‘Va pensiero,’ the curse theme returns and leads to a triumphant section made up of three melodies: one derived from the chorus of Assyrian priests in Act II, a second, the stretta of the finale of Act I and the third, the duet in Act III between Nabucco and Abigaille, his adopted daughter.” Music Director Tonu Kalam conducted a theatrically effective interpretation of this seldom-heard overture. All the sections of the orchestra played together with good ensemble. The low brass of the trombones and tuba intoned the solemn opening chorale. The student orchestra’s strings’ carefully-matched playing brought out the complex musical lines. No musicians could have made much more out of the cruder stock orchestration that is present in the score. There were good solos from the woodwinds and the trumpet. With strings unmatched in number elsewhere in the Triangle, orchestral balances were no problem.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, in F, Op. 68 (“Pastoral”), brought the short concert to a close. The composer intended this to be a musical evocation of the feelings inspired by a walk in the country rather than a literal portrayal favored by the later Romantics, such as Richard Strauss, in the vulgar Alpine Symphony . There are five movements, all with descriptive titles as well as tempo designations. All the virtues the orchestra demonstrated in the Verdi were still manifest in the symphony. Kalam held the piece firmly together in a performance that featured convincing phrasing, careful balancing of the sections of the orchestra, and clear delineation of the musical line. Perhaps reflecting recent advances in musicology, Kalam set a brisk pace for the first movement, which was almost a hurried jog.

The alert musicians kept up with the tempo, and the large contingent of strings maintained good discipline. A good, moderate tempo for the second movement (the beloved “Scene by the Brook”) allowed the woodwinds to shine in the three bird-calls quoted: the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo. The horns were tolerably good, sometimes skirting the edge but without major disasters. The bassoons were fine but I would have preferred more assertive playing. A good rustic-dancing rhythm and a persuasive hint of droning peasant bagpipes were highlights of the third movement, “Merry Gathering of Country Folk.” Again, the woodwinds, and especially the oboe, were good, the trumpet was fine, and the horns, bucolic. The build-up of dynamics for the “Storm” was excellent, with resplendent brass over thundering timpani. If only the musical spray of this tempest could have really cooled the humid air in Hill Hall! The flute, oboe, and horn were particularly good in the last movement, “Shepherd Song; Happy and Thankful Feelings After the Storm.” The cuckoo’s call returned in the woodwinds. The quiet string playing just before the end was memorable. Prolonged, enthusiastic applause greeted the players, and Kalam had the many important solo artists stand for acknowledgment. A conservatory orchestra might have brought a higher level of polish but this was one of the best and most consistently well-played performances I have heard from the UNC ensemble.