Competitions can make or break careers in music, and the larger ones can carry large amounts of stress with a capital “S.” One suspects that the competitions staged by our community orchestras are somewhat less intense. For many years, the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra has been involved in two annual programs offering performance opportunities to young people with aspirations as soloists. This is a very good thing, as there was a time – yes, even here in the capital – when young people could make it all the way through college without ever getting to play or sing with orchestral backing. Meredith College calls its contest a “concerto aria competition.” This year, 16 students vied for slots in a program offered on a cool Saturday evening in the school’s venerable Jones Auditorium. Music director Jim Waddelow conducted.

The concert began with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (the so-called “St. Anthony” Variations), a work in ten sections – an introduction and a finale, separated by eight variations. As is generally the case with pieces in this form, the introduction is an unadorned statement of the theme, in this case believed by the composer to have been by Haydn but now attributed to Ignaz Pleyel.* This got off to a rocky start, for reasons not altogether clear – perhaps it was merely a balance issue in the winds, or maybe someone misread the key signature, or it just might have been a bad night for an oboist. Fortunately, things began to improve as the variations got underway, and by the finale the music worked its customary magic, eliciting in its wake warm applause from the audience.

The six soloists appeared in four works, all quite nicely accompanied – Waddelow is a cellist, and he has a very good feel for balance when guests appear with his orchestra.

Soprano Taylor O’Donnell soloed in “He was despised,” from Messiah, an ABA aria given with appropriate ornamentation during the repeat; it is generally assigned to mezzos or even contraltos but this singer, a music education major, projected admirable tone across the range of the piece.

A substantial scene from Delibes’ Lakmé – a duet made popular everywhere by British Airways and other advertisers – received a fine reading from sopranos Jennifer Shore and Laura Beth Dawson, also music ed. students. (The part of Mallika is assigned to a mezzo in the opera.) Here we heard more than just the duet, as the gem of the opera was set in proper context by its introduction and some additional lines. It also ended effectively as the two singers made their way to the back of the hall before delivering the excerpt’s finale.

Soprano Jennifer Paschal (a student of Ellen Williams) was ably assisted by clarinetist Angela Bloemeke (who has worked with Don Oehler and Jimmy Gilmore) in Sesto’s aria “Parto, parto” (also generally sung by a mezzo), from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Here the clarinet is an artistic co-equal, and the performances of both musicians made this a special occasion.

The concert ended with a lovely performance of the slow movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, in F minor, Op. 21, by the evening’s youngest winner, freshman Lily Stavish, a student of Kent Lyman. This was very elegant and refined, intensely musical, and beautifully integrated, making one wish the artists had gone on to complete the piece.

The program included texts and translations of the French and Italian numbers but no notes, per se.

The RSO’s other competition program is slated for Sunday, March 22, at 3:00 p.m., in the same venue. This offers winners of the orchestra’s own statewide contest, given under the banner of “Rising Stars”; the program includes a repeat of Brahms’ Haydn Variations. It would be worth a trip to hear the selectees – and to support this wonderful community artistic resource, too. For details, click here.

*The handy and useful ISMLP website, where two versions of the score (orchestral and for two pianos) may be seen and downloaded, describes current scholarship regarding the provenance of the tune thusly: “Based on a theme from the Divertimento, Hob.II:46  – thought for many years to be by Haydn, but now thought to be by Haydn’s pupil, [composer and piano builder] Ignaz Pleyel – the second movement of which is based on an old Burgenland [Austrian] chant entitled Chorale St. Anthony.”