In retrospect, the main event was probably the April 6 recital (reviewed for CVNC by Marvin J. Ward). That was apparently the big to-do for pianists Barbara Rowan and Francis Whang, who retire from UNC’s Department of Music at the end of the current semester. But no one was prepared to let these senior teachers and artists off the hook with just one program so, as the Janus Duo, they were back before their public one last time, during the April 24 UNC Symphony Orchestra scholarship benefit concert. Strangely, the program didn’t relate the significance of the occasion, nor was there a biography. Readers who missed the April 6 program may wish to see a glowing tribute to the pair by Doris Powers in the April 18 edition of the Chapel Hill News, as of this writing still available online [but inactive as of 1/04…].

Rowan came to UNC in 1964 and Whang, in 1971. As Powers notes, “together they have about 70 years of service in their field.” Their departure will create a substantial void in UNC’s Music Department, but the fact that they are going to remain here gives hope for future performances.

The UNCSO concert began with a glowing performance of the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Thanks to fortuitous regional programming, the Triangle has had the opportunity to hear both of the main orchestral introductions to this happy work in the past month; the Duke Symphony played the Prelude to Act III on April 9. In Chapel Hill, the large orchestra (there are as many strings in the UNC band as there are players in most other orchestras hereabouts) filled Hill Hall with sound – and then some. The musicians were packed like so many sardines in a small tin (thanks in part to the presence on stage of two pianos, ready for the Janus Duo). Hill is a quirky place, and while the performance was admirable, the impact was perhaps too much, even from fairly far back in the hall. Still, there’s nothing quite like a large orchestra at full throttle, in full cry – and it’s a fact that opera patrons rarely hear this Prelude so vibrantly and richly delivered in the theatre.

The evening’s centerpiece was a truly remarkable reading of Poulenc’s charming and delightful Concerto for Two Pianos. The capacity crowd (augmented by a contingent of students from Ligon Middle School) gave the soloists a tremendous ovation before they played a note, obliging them to rise again, after they had taken their seats. Truly, these are deeply-admired and much-loved musicians and teachers!

The Concerto was written in 1932 but retains its sparkle, or at least it did on this occasion, when the soloists were in top form, playing music that is clearly near and dear to their hearts. The reduced orchestration allowed all sections of the accompanying ensemble to be heard clearly, and the results were crisp, precise, and consistently engaging. The pianists used the new instruments, nicknamed Terry [Rhodes] and Stafford [Wing] for the two singers in whose honor they were presented to the Department. With matched keyboards and artists on absolutely the same wave-length, and with outstanding support from Maestro Tonu Kalam and his well-drilled players, this was quite a thrilling musical ride. At the end, there was another huge ovation, and the artists were repeatedly recalled to the stage.

The concert ended with a superb performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C, Op. 48, which sounded marvelous, too – thanks, of course, to those 65 strings. For sonic reasons alone, that might be the practical upper limit, personnel-wise, in Hill Hall. Kalam elicited a well-unified, often transparent performance, introducing along the way some attractive interpretive touches but never allowing the time-honored piece to lapse into sentimentality…. There was awesome richness from the lower strings, the divisi were handled smartly, demonstrating strength in the violas and second violins, and the few slight miscalculations did not detract from the overall excellence of the reading. When you’re talking orchestras, size matters, so the UNCSO is worth hearing for that reason alone. There was another standing ovation at the end of this concert – rare enough in Chapel Hill, and thoroughly merited in this instance.