One of the benefits of doing music criticism in the same community for a long time is having the opportunity to witness the growth of various arts organizations. In the case of the Chapel Hill Philharmonia, previously known as the Village Orchestra of Chapel Hill, the pleasure has been intensely keen, not always due to the quality of the performances but invariably because of the enthusiasm exhibited by the instrumentalists — who are all volunteers and who, in fact, pay (dues…) to play. The group has been led by some of Chapel Hill’s (and UNC’s) most distinguished artists, including Edgar Alden, Ruth Johnsen and Brent Wissick (jointly), and more recently, Donald L. Oehler. Not all these folks are (or were) conductors, per se, but they all managed to encourage reasonably coherent playing, some of the time. This semester, Oehler has been on leave; the guest stick-waver was Andrew McAfee, best known as the NCS’s principal horn, but he’s away from that orchestra this term, himself, while working on a master’s degree in conducting at the NCSA. (Small world, eh?)

On Sunday evening, McAfee led the substantial (80-member) orchestra in familiar music by Beethoven and Brahms and new music by Garth Molyneux and Terry Mizesko, the latter’s score with guest trumpet soloist Tim Hudson. It’s not the first time the CH Phil. has offered a world premiere; unlike most “community” orchestras, this one demonstrates a passion for contemporary works, a passion altogether commendable and, by prevailing standards in the orchestral world, rare, too.

The substantial program was played before a capacity audience in the old rehearsal room of Hill Hall; the main auditorium, which is more commodious but nonetheless no great shakes, acoustically or otherwise, is undergoing some limited renovations (carpet and seats, we’ve been told — but no air conditioning, thus making one wonder why they are bothering…). The orchestra was however seated on the floor of the room and the audience was consigned to the built-in risers.

The Overture to Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus was rough around the edges and in the in-between places, too. Its familiarity may have contributed to the impression of not-quite-ready-ness that the reading conveyed.

Things improved considerably with the premiere of Molyneux’s “Romanza,” sort of a pastiche based on the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and other tunes. With its prominent harp part and its imitations of the much-abused Mahler elegy, it came across well enough, in some respects, although surely those who know the original cannot have been completely enchanted with the adaptation. (The composer is a member of the horn section of the orchestra.)

Much more successful was Mizesko’s very impressive “Lamento for Don Quixote,” for trumpet (Hudson) and strings. This set of variations doesn’t provide major competition for Richard Strauss’ big orchestral tour de force, but it engaged both the brilliant soloist and the audience as it unfolded across its ten-minute span. I’ll pay it a high compliment: it’s a work that I’d be pleased to hear again, and several times.

Both composers were on hand to acknowledge the applause. In the future, it might be worthwhile for the orchestra to give visiting composers the chance to introduce their own works with a few words.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 was performed after the intermission. It’s a blockbuster of a work that separates sheep from goats in the fully professional world. Alas, it was too ambitious for the CH Phil., and there were many problems throughout the reading in basic as well as less fundamental areas, touching on such things as balance, ensemble, tuning, phrasing, attacks, releases, dynamics, and so on. That it earned the approval of the crowd may reflect the large numbers of family and friends in attendance, but it could just as well have reflected collective relief that this was not yet another Christmas concert….

The Mizesko work was to have been played at the orchestra’s previous concert, given on the afternoon of October 20 in the same venue, but Hudson was indisposed then so the premiere was postponed. In its place there was other music by Mizesko, who is the bass trombonist of the NCS and an important if perhaps under-sung regional composer. In October, the orchestra took up two parts of his Sketches from Pinehurst, premiered in 2005, using that music to accompany Brooks de Wetter-Smith’s film Southern Ice, which will in turn form the basis of a new composition by Allen Anderson to be premiered in Raleigh in April 2008. What Pinehurst has to do with Antarctica (except perhaps during our periodic ice storms) eludes me, but the pairing was in any event a highly successful element in the CH Phil.’s young person’s concert, “From Movies to Mars — Exploring Emotions in Music.” The program also included a charming children’s tale, “The Little Boy and the Tree Branch,” by Harold Farberman, narrated by Ann-Louise Aguiar, and music by John Williams, Holst, Mendelssohn, and Mozart. This event was S.R.O., demonstrating that McAfee and the Chapel Hillians are doing some things absolutely correctly.

At the outset I mentioned having done criticism for a while here. With the indulgence of our readers, I will say that it began, for me, 30 years ago December 15, when Nell Hirschberg sent me to review (for The News & Observer) a concert by Ruggiero Ricci and the NC Symphony, John Gosling, conductor, in the abysmal wreck of a venue that was Raleigh’s old civic center (while the abysmal wreck of a venue that is Memorial Auditorium was undergoing one of its periodic facelifts). I think of Nell almost every day, so grateful am I for her tutelage and guidance, but she was not my only musical mentor; others included James E. Thiem, Edward J. Smith (the producer of opera records, not the skipper of Titanic…), Roger Hannay, Donald Peery, Peregrine White, and Richard Freed plus, of course, a host of superb editors, among them Bill Morrison, Kim Weiss, Pulitzer Prize winner Dan Neil, and rock musician Greg Barbera. For most of the intervening years — aside from some interruptions resulting from spats with Spectator Magazine (to whose management Nell also introduced me) and for the real fight that was Operation Desert Storm — my interest has encompassed local performing arts organizations such as our many community orchestras and choirs and chamber groups and new music as presented throughout our region. Thus this December concert by the Chapel Hill Philharmonia, despite the challenges it entailed, served as an ideal vehicle to mark this little anniversary of sorts for yours truly. With luck I’ll keep going for a while longer. Meanwhile, I extend my heartfelt thanks to the musicians, presenters, readers, and many admirable critical colleagues who have helped make this wonderful ride possible for me.