Over the last few years, our civic orchestras have evolved into competent, lively ensembles that can provide a welcome variety to the classical music scene in the area. Much of the credit for this development must go to Alan Neilson, conductor of both the Raleigh and Durham Symphonies. Under his leadership, the Durham Symphony, active since 1976, has become a quite polished ensemble. While Neilson sticks with conventional repertoire – some might even say stodgy – the chance for WCPE fans to hear their classical top 100 live is a true service.

The balmy weather and many competing events made for a sparse audience, but those who came on Sunday afternoon were in for an enjoyable concert, if somewhat narrow in scope. In all, the program lacked variety, spanning a mere 40 years (1804-1844) of music history. A little more harmonic and textural variety would have been welcome.

Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture opened the program at a plodding pace. The first few measures of nearly all Berlioz’s overtures separate the professional orchestras from the gifted amateurs; it’s the difference between getting off the block to a rousing start without tripping over the rhythms, and slowing it down so everyone stays together. However, the English horn solo by Mary Greiner was lovely. The overture, the music for which Berlioz rescued from his failed opera Benvenuto Cellini , is beloved by orchestra players, especially the brass. The orchestra’s brass was in good form and gave the performance a true carnival atmosphere.

Probably for reasons of stage management in the cramped Carolina Theater, the Beethoven Triple Concerto was saved until after intermission, and the first half concluded with Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (actually his second). It was composed in 1841 during the happy first year of his marriage to Clara, and in his diary the composer wrote “…my next symphony will be called Clara and I will portray her with flutes, oboes and harps.” It received a chilly reception at the premiere, and Schumann withdrew the work and revised it only in 1851. He fused all four movement to be played without a break, but many conductors – including Neilson – ignore this directive and separate the first three movements from each other. The orchestra’s performance was precise, but lacked in crispness, most noticeably in some of the attacks in the scherzo. The brass did well again, especially in the introduction and final movement.

Violinist Hsiao-mei Ku, cellist Leonid Zilper and pianist Ray Kilburn, playing together as the Chirusca (CHina, RUssia, CAnada) Trio, performed Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello & Orchestra. This seldom heard work has some intrinsic problems of its own, one reason why orchestras tend to shy away from it. Triangle audiences, however, had the opportunity to hear it last year with the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle and the Arman Trio, and we, therefore, didn’t see much reason for repeating it so soon.

Beethoven went to great pains to give the three soloists equal billing, and Ku was at her best, giving a forceful, assertive and sensitive performance. Zilper, on the other hand, had some intonation problems, especially in the first movement, and his tone was muffled, perhaps because of his odd placement on the small stage, squeezed in between the grand piano and the violins, with his music stand close in front of the sound holes. Kilburn’s playing was sensitive to the dynamics, but with the piano lid fully open, the orchestra sounded as if it came from the wings.

Unfortunately, the printed program was a mess, with numerous spelling mistakes and typos – including the name of the conductor – as well as factual errors in the program notes.