A full house at the Stevens Center greeted the world premiere performance of Permutations, a concerto in one movement, composed by alumnus Robert Chumbley, featuring the fine faculty associate professor of piano, Dmitri Shteinberg. The UNCSA student orchestra was conducted by guest conductor and alumnus Robert Franz, whose appointment to the position of Music Director of the UNCSA Orchestra (starting next school year) was announced by the Dean of the School of Music, Saxton Rose, to loud acclaim from the audience and students on stage.

The evening opened with Concert Overture No. 2 (1943) by Florence Price (1887-1954), a work Winston-Salem Symphony audiences heard on the same stage in November 2022. This was a romantic rendering of a fantasy based on three spirituals: “Go Down, Moses,” “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” The orchestra played with enthusiasm and featured some lovely solos – Jake Anderson on cello, Jose Olea Vico on violin and Elijah Van Camp-Goh on trombone.

“Permutations” is a somewhat unusual name for a musical work; it more frequently applies to a collection of mathematical terms which have a determined order (as compared to a “combination” in which order is unimportant). In music, we are more likely to speak of a “theme and variations” or as in the case of César Franck, “Symphonic Variations.”

Chumbley’s work begins with a low, slow, and pensive entrance of the solo piano, presumably introducing the main thematic material of the piece. The string sections followed, with warmer and richer harmonies, and the winds joined them, leading to a third section where soloist and orchestra played together, pitting arpeggios against legato melodic sections. Shteinberg is obviously an outstanding pianist (already noted) and he made the Chumbley sound easy, yet impressively dramatic. The orchestra and Franz were also on top of their game, delivering mysterious moments of hemiola, enchanting four-horn staccato accompaniments and broad unison melodic passages. The ending was only a bit disappointing, with its T. S. Eliot-like ending, “…not with a bang but a whimper.” However, the audience was clear in its approval of the performance with its warm standing ovation!

Felix Mendelssohn was a true child prodigy: a talented pianist and gifted composer whose most famous overture (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) was written at age 17, and the superb Octet (for strings) at age 16. He wrote five symphonies, but the numbering is unusual because they are commonly numbered in order of publication, not order of composition (composed order: 1, 5, 4, 2, 3). Maestro Franz chose the Italian Symphony, No. 4 in A to close this concert – a felicitous choice. As a faculty member in the audience commented, quoting one of her former teachers, “Many composers wrote fast music, but Mendelssohn wrote quick music!” And “quick,” indeed, was the order of the evening! Composed shortly after the composer’s first visit to Italy, the 21-year-old composed and revised this symphony many times, allowing it to be performed in London, but prohibiting it from performance in Germany during his lifetime.

Choosing quick tempos, Franz led a stellar performance of great energy and precision. I was particularly pleased to hear the repeat in the first movement exposition, because it reveals new thematic material not heard again until the closing coda. The second movement, possibly inspired by a church service Mendelssohn described to his sister, Fanny, uses an austere hymn over a constantly moving bass line, followed by a moving flute duet of intricate counterpoint. A sober minuet and trio were followed by another quick movement, successfully combining both saltarella (a jumping dance) and tarantella (a dance to ward off the effects of a tarantula spider bite). The audience expressed itself vociferously at the end of one of the UNCSA Orchestra’s best performances.

We look forward to next season. Welcome back Maestro Franz!