Hill Hall was the venue for the Chapel Hill Philharmonia‘s season finale, a program of music by Beethoven, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky, preceded by a new fanfare for four horns played in memory of Jerry Hulka, a founding member of what was then the Village Orchestra. The concert offered some additional enhancements. It was preceded by a lobby performance of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, for flute, clarinet, harp, and string quartet, given by CHP members who are part of the newly-launched Philharmonia Chamber Players, whose debut will take place on May 17 in the Kenan Music Building. In the audience were former members of the orchestra, specially invited and acknowledged by conductor and music director Donald L. Oehler. And there was a reception, always welcome (to critics and lay-persons alike).

This is Chapel Hill’s community orchestra. Many cities have them, cities where the arts and culture are valued, and where there are sufficient players of technical and artistic ability. We’ve written often of the importance of these organizations and of the fact that their members generally play for the sheer love of music – and of course to inspire others, of all ages, with that love for the vast repertoire that is the core of our Western classical music heritage and tradition. The 85 or so members of the CHP clearly feel this and project it during their performances.

Jerry Hulka found love and solace in the ranks of this orchestra, and it was a moving tribute indeed that four of his section pals played in his memory at the start of this program, offering a short fanfare by Garth Molyneux. It reminded this listener of the brass choirs that play before performances at Bayreuth, and this music brought a comparable level of attention and respect.

Beethoven’s Egmont Overture has nice passages for horns, too, and its presence on the program thus continued the tribute.

Hill Hall is a lively room, and during the Beethoven the orchestra sometimes seemed larger than life. Oehler had announced this was to be one of the very last concerts in it, prior to its extensive renovation (and – may all the gods be praised simultaneously – air conditioning). Here’s hoping that the sound will be tamed, at least somewhat, during that overhaul.  (I’ve been hearing music quite regularly in this room since 1963, and even with new seats, wall-hangings, shells, carpeting, and more, it still takes some getting used to, every time I visit it.)

There were fewer sonic issues during the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, played by Jane Zhao, a student of Florence Ko and winner of the CHP’s annual student concerto completion. The 16-year-old artist has been cleaning house, figuratively, winning concerto competitions here and there this spring, so be on the lookout for her. This is a fine player by any standard of measure. She’s poised, assured, technically and artistically ahead of the curve, and a delight to see and hear in action. This concerto movement was a remarkable experience, since Zhao and Oehler (and thus the assisting instrumentalists) seemed in almost complete accord throughout. At the end, there was sorrow in more than one quarter, to be sure, that they didn’t go on and play the rest of the piece.

The second half was given over to a performance of the “Pathétique” Symphony by Tchaikovsky. It’s a war horse, as someone noted on the way in, but one that the orchestra managed to control admirably. The fact that the violins were divided, left and right, in classical style, surely helped, for the richness of the firsts (with 18 on the roster) and the seconds (with perhaps 13 of those listed playing) was constantly apparent during this performance. There were some balance issues, with too much prominence from the higher winds at times, and there were some tech challenges, particularly among the horns, but the music swept all before it – as is often the case in this emotionally-drenching score – and at the end there was heartfelt applause from the enthusiastic audience.

Know of a home where this group can play next year? They want to hear from you. And they want your money, too, to help them pay the rent (and more) till they get “home” again to the refurbished Hill Hall.