For young singers and instrumentalists, the chance to perform with a full orchestra is a rare treat. Nothing that has gone on in the practice room or the recital hall can compare to the thrill of being accompanied by full symphonic forces the way composers intended.

Meredith College’s School of Music has been providing its students such a chance for the last eighteen years, with the help of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. Students are first judged by a faculty committee and then by a panel of guest judges. The winners perform arias and concerto movements with the orchestra in a public performance.

The 2002 annual concert, held on Sunday March 24, featured three sopranos, a flutist and a pianist, with Jack Roller, Meredith’s Director of Instrumental Activities, as the Symphony’s guest conductor. In general, the instrumentalists were more confident and assured that the vocalists, but all five performers displayed talent and potential.

Heading the list was pianist Charity Duran, who played the first movement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F (not the whole work as the program implied). Duran calmly attacked the bold chords and sweeping runs that pepper this wonderful work. She had the right languid feeling for the sensuous central melody and an appropriate jauntiness for the syncopations of the jazzier passages, playing cleanly and with precision. Roller had a tough time retaining the shape of this somewhat sprawling and eclectic movement. Many of the connecting passages between the piano solos were taken at such a measured pace that the forward thrust of piece was lost. There also were several sections when the orchestra overpowered the piano, blocking it out entirely.

The most successful pairing of the evening came with flutist Rachel Elizabeth Stenbuck’s performance of Mozart’s Andante in C Major, K. 315. This charming miniature, the middle movement of an unfinished concerto, was given a warm reading by both soloist and orchestra. Stenbuck’s phrasing was smooth, her tone sweet and her dynamics subtle. The strings were beautifully together, the pizzicato sections wonderfully hushed, Roller’s conducting delicate and subdued.

For young vocalists, it is always difficult to find operatic arias to program, since most are composed to show off mature voices with experienced technique. For the three selections here, each soprano displayed sound training and certain vocal qualities, although none were yet up to the full challenges.

Most successful was Wendy Sims in “Rejoice Greatly” from Handel’s Messiah . Her basic tone was firm and her diction clear. She negotiated the trills and the passage work cleanly, although the notoriously long runs challenged her breath control in several sections, sometimes producing a slight hootiness on top. The orchestra played with appropriate precision, Roller’s pacing just right. A more relaxed stage presence and a smile are needed to enhance Sims’s future performances.

Tricia Strong. on the other hand, had great confidence and presence, her smiling calm adding strength to her singing of “Somehow I never could believe” from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene . The basic sound of her voice is attractive and she enunciates text with clarity and some feeling. However, the role of Anna Maurrant is for a larger, more mature voice, causing Strong to force her tone too often, unable to ride the climaxes and rich scoring (somewhat scrappily supplied by the orchestra). The aria also has darker moments and more introspection that Strong gave it. It would be interesting to hear her in a lighter comic role or more lyrical roles.

Mozart’s arias are some of the most difficult in all opera because of their deceptive simplicity and exposed writing. Emily Kicklighter already has a voice of some power, which she can use to produce secure, full tones, especially in the upper register. Her middle voice is not firmly focused yet, although she also can negotiate the lower notes without forcing or faking. There was little interpretation and the aria was sung in disconnected phrases. But this is a young voice with promise and should be encouraged. Here the orchestra’s strings were not as clean but the mood of the aria was nicely projected.

The concert opened and closed with short orchestral pieces. The overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which opened the concert, was taken a such a broad tempo (presumably to allow the strings to manage the runs) that it lost its sparkle and buoyancy, even though the stings did stay together. More successful was Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance, Op. 72, No. 2, in which Roller’s gently swaying tempo and the orchestra’s full, rounded tone gave a glowing mood to this engaging work.

All cavils aside, Meredith College is to be congratulated for providing such an opportunity for its students, for involving another musical organization in the area and for offering it free to the public.