The Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra‘s 58th season is well underway, having begun last month with a program encompassing music by Rouse, Lalo, and Beethoven. This is said to be our state’s senior community orchestra, and there are few other such groups who may dispute its maturity. For the past ten years, its artistic leadership has been in the hands of conductor Fouad Fakhouri, who has built admirably on the then already-secure foundation he inherited, among other things launching a program to endow orchestral chairs in order to shore up its future in perpetuity. But it’s in the realm of artistic leadership that his contributions seem to have been most profound. The orchestra’s programs are richly varied delights with – literally – something for everyone, ranging from new music to mainstream masterworks to pops and chamber fare. It helps that this is the only orchestral game in town, so they seem to have the field largely to themselves; regular concerts in Fayetteville by the NC Symphony are apparently viewed more as enhancements of the cultural scene than direct competition for the dollars of area music lovers. And even if this were not the case, the FSO is good enough to give these or any other visitors serious runs for their money.

The orchestra’s latest offering was heard in the visually and acoustically attractive confines of J.W. Seabrook Auditorium, on the campus of historic (and historically significant) Fayetteville State University, which traces its roots all the way back to 1867. On the program were two works by Tchaikovsky, four by Dvořák, and the world premiere of a brilliant little concert bon-bon by the FSO’s multi-talented music director, who this year celebrates his tenth anniversary.

First up was the celebrated Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s most popular opera, Eugen Onegin. This made for a splendid concert opener, and it was crisply and incisively played, with firm rhythms. The orchestral sonority was impressive, and the winds and brass demonstrated their rock-solid skills from the outset, attributes that would enrich the program throughout the evening. The upper strings seemed a trifle tentative in several exposed passages, but they quickly warmed to their tasks, the ensemble coalescing and shining from then on. Were we to call out the principal players for special recognition, we’d have to name virtually all of them; for a list of the members, click here (but not everyone on that list played this concert…).

Fakhouri wrote an introductory piece when he accepted his assignment in Fayetteville a decade ago, memories of which were reprised in the Fayetteville Observer when the work was encored in the 2007-8 season. For the current season, he was inspired to take up the pen again, and the celebratory result, called “PUNCH IT!,” puts an exclamation point on the maestro’s work, to date. He explained that the title stems from last season’s preparations for Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire” Overture (reviewed here); during one of the rehearsals, the conductor exhorted his players to “punch it” toward the end, where a big increase in energy was needed. The short score – six minutes in duration – is inspired and influenced by film music, in some cases so overtly one is tempted to laugh out loud. Like the most brilliant practitioners of that refined art, however, Fakhouri has infused art at every level into his merry music-making. There are more than hints of the whole Star Trek scene plus dibs and dabs of Bernstein, all richly enough scored to suggest that early master Korngold at his finest. The music, flamboyant without ever going completely over the top, was warmly received.

There followed a sort of mini-suite of Slavonic Dances by Dvořák, consisting of the second half of the first book of these heart-warming little essays in nationalistic music at its finest. (Brahms admired them intensely.) The orchestra was in top form for these works, and the conductor seemed to have crawled inside their composer’s skin, so the results were highly idiomatic and interpretively “correct,” even when compared in the memory with the finest recordings of these pieces by the greatest of the great Czech authorities. There was applause for all – hard to avoid, since each comes with its own significant full stop – and waves more of well-deserved audience enthusiasm at the end.

Part two brought Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. There’s a time in every critic’s life when an “oh, no, not again” refrain comes to mind, as twice- or thrice-played works reappear on our musical horizons. But there’s a reason these great pieces – call them war horses if you will – retain popularity with musicians and the public too, and that reason is that they’ve stood the test of time to earn their street cred. (I’m also reminded that at every public concert there are folks hearing these great scores for the first time – and, perhaps, for the last time – so why should any scribe rain on such parades?) And particularly when the music was delivered with such commanding authority as was the case here, what’s not to like? Great music, radiantly played: that’s the name of the game, and at every page turn – by the instrumentalists – more delights were revealed, sometimes almost as if we were hearing this symphony for the first time. I mentioned those instrumentalists’ page turns because the conductor didn’t do any of that, having committed the entire score in all its varied complexity to memory. That’s no gee-wiz trick but instead represents his level of commitment to the art Fakhouri is so nobly serving in Fayetteville.

The informative pre-concert talk was given by three principals: flute, viola, and French horn.

Go hear this orchestra. It’s well worth even a substantial trip.

This program will be repeated on October 26 at 4 p.m. in Lee Auditorium in Southern Pines. For details, see the sidebar.