The UNC Symphony Orchestra, under the exceptional tutelage of Tonu Kalam, opened their 2019-20 concert season with a marvelous all-orchestral program featuring Aaron Copland’s touching Suite from Appalachian Spring and Johannes Brahms’ expansive First Symphony.

The collaboration between Copland and dancer-choreographer Martha Graham began in 1943, focused on the idea of creating a ballet with “an American theme.” The storyline and dance sequences were developed over the following year as the simple story of a newlywed pioneer couple establishing their home with joy, love, prayer, and dreams of the Promised Land. The title was not decided until just a couple of weeks before its premiere in 1944 with a 13-member chamber ensemble and Graham dancing the principal role. The inspiration of the title was from a poem by Hart Crane that actually references a stream of water trickling through the hills, not the season of spring as has usually ‒ and not unreasonably ‒ been assumed, since the action takes place in the springtime.

The music, rich in primary tonal harmony and wide intervals, became the quintessential “American sound,” often imitated by American composers in the following years and, frequently, by Copland himself.

In 1945 Copland arranged an orchestral suite of selected music from Appalachian Spring on commission from the conductor Artur Rodzinski. In 1954, Eugene Ormandy asked Copland to expand the orchestration for the full ballet. And in 1972 Boosey and Hawkes published another suite version in the original 13-instrument format. The UNC Symphony Orchestra performed the 1945 version for full orchestra.

There are eight themes alternating in spirit between quietly meditative, joyful and jaunty and hymn tunes, the most notable of which is the use of the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts”. Copland, aware of the pitfall of sentimentality in this music and story, cautioned, “I have often admonished orchestras, professional and otherwise, not to get too sweet or too sentimental with it.”

There are challenges in this work: much of the solo work leaves the performer fully exposed before the audience. Some of the mood changes are sudden and unprepared and much of the music is light and delicate. Thus a couple of fluffed notes, a late (or early) entrance could easily be overlooked in the joy of the lush sound of 59 string instruments (double-bass to violin) soaring together and the lovely woodwind passages that so bravely walked the thin line between empty sentimentality and gorgeous absolute music.

Brahms’ First Symphony was, famously, a long time coming. He began composing a D minor Symphony in 1854 (age 21), but before it was finished in 1858 it had become his Piano Concerto No. 1. It was another ten years before he realized the form his first symphony would take (at age 31). That year he sent his dear friend Clara Schumann a card sketching the Alphorn tune that would become the spiritual core of the symphony’s final movement. However, the anticipated symphony did not appear until 1876 when Brahms had turned 43.

Two reasons for this long, hesitant gestation are usually given: Brahms’ self-critical drive for perfection and the anxiety the sound that Beethoven’s footsteps behind him instilled. Without a doubt this magnificent symphony was worth the wait.

The symphony begins with a broad introduction – Un poco sostenuto – wherein three key elements are heard simultaneously: the low drumming, the rising figure in the strings, and the falling figure in the winds. It was breathtaking, everything balanced and purposeful. The Allegro section of the movement is a large orchestral sonata, wherein musical ideas are stated, developed, and restated with altered relationships among them. The intricate interweaving of solo and orchestral passages in counterpoint development was warm and enriching.

The gentle lyricism of the second movement – Andante sostenuto – was captivating. The long violin solo was reminiscent of some of Beethoven’s later works: the late quartets, e.g., and was beautifully rendered. The third, scherzo-like movement, had an easy spirit yet was full of complex rhythms and interwoven textures so skillfully and artistically handled by the woodwinds, especially.

The fourth movement begins with a slow introduction, building then falling, increasing tension, implying somethings is coming, building then falling, until finally the brass and timpani, with a reverent chorale, introduce a tune that Brahms heard from an Alpine shepherd with the words, “High on the hill, deep in the dale, I send you a thousand greetings!” And then – (What a symphonic moment?) – the strings gorgeously and proudly lifted up this soaring melody. It may be reminiscent of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme, but it has its own oomph, its own universalism. In this performance by the UNCSO it flew with the wings of the strings and outstanding support from the French horns and other brass. It was braced by awesome woodwinds and timpani. It was an end of the season-quality performance, not merely a fall semester opening performance. There is much to anticipate ahead!

Please visit our calendar to see what the rest of the University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra performances will be in the coming school year.