Maestro Fouad Fakhouri closed his eleven-year run as music director of the Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra with a magnificent concert in Fayetteville State University‘s Seabrook Auditorium. The evening was bittersweet but never the slightest bit maudlin – bittersweet because he’s such a fine conductor and because he’s done so much both for and with the FSO, which was already a mainstay of cultural life in Cumberland County before he arrived but whose excellence he has clearly elevated. At the ripe old age of 60, it’s the state’s senior community orchestra, which is saying something. It doesn’t take years of conservatory training to tell that the work Fakhouri and his predecessors have done will secure a bright artistic future as the orchestra continues to evolve. And one thing that will help in that process is the $1.1 million endowment established at the Cumberland Community Foundation in the departing conductor’s honor.

Fakhouri’s departure was mentioned during the preconcert discussions and in the board chair’s welcoming and intermission remarks and when Fayetteville City Councilor James W. Arp presented him the key to the city. It was also saluted with a large bouquet, given by the principal cellist. But it was clear that the large audience that gathered for this occasion saluted him too, for the waves of applause, particularly at the end of the concert, went on and on and on.

As well they should have.

The program encompassed two substantial works. Replacing Brahms’ “Academic Festival” Overture (which would have been fun to hear and appropriate, too, given the involvement of so many students in the concert) was Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” the extraordinary set of variations for piano and orchestra that remains one of dour Old Stoneface’s most radiantly beautiful and engaging scores. On hand to play the solo part was Kiffen Loomis, 17, of Asheville, winner of the Harlan Duenow Young Artist Concerto Competition, who seems to be in the business of winning prizes for playing concerti with orchestras, because he has pretty much cleaned up these offerings throughout our state in the recent past. (Readers may hear him play some Mozart here.)

He’s phenomenal!

Of course, he had to be in order to be awarded the entire Rhapsody as his FSO performance prize, since usually even the very best student players get only a short work or a single movement of a longer one.

So this playing made one sit up and take notice of his complete professionalism, his artistry, his technique, and his rock-solid interaction with the conductor and the other instrumentalists who, working all together, produced a magnificent, totally secure, and (dare we say?) masterful rendition of the glorious score.

Fakhouri’s excellence as a leader of accompaniments cannot be overstated. He will be missed!

Part two – after the presentation of that city key (which, come to think of it, Fakhouri might have found more useful earlier in his tenure, rather than as he prepares to take his departure…) – was devoted to a complete performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, premiered in 1937 under circumstances that have left something of a cloud over the piece (since the Nazis were very much on the rise at that juncture in the Fatherland…). And never mind the medieval texts, created by monks whose reflections were not purely spiritual (the mere fact of which may account for the omission of translations in the program – but readers who are interested may see them here). There were however good program notes that gave a summary of the action, and truth to tell it’s not essential to follow every word, although attentive listeners could well have done so, since the diction was so good on this occasion.

The chorus consisted of members of the Cumberland Oratorio Singers and the Methodist University Chorale, both directed by Michael Martin and totaling around 90 singers, and 25 or so members of the newly-minted Cambellton Youth Chorus, directed by Donna Jo Mangus (whose choir seems to operate under the auspices of the COS). The adults were on risers at the back of the stage, discretely amplified in such a way as to enhance the volume and presence of the sound without ever making the boosting seem obvious. With only a few minor exceptions (in very lightly accompanied passages) did the balance skew toward the choir. For the most part, balance was superb, and the overall effect in the hall was terrific. Meanwhile, the children were in the balcony, close to the stage, on both sides of the hall, which allowed them to see the conductor at all times and to be heard to very good advantage by the audience.

The three soloists – soprano Erin Leigh Matson Murdock, a former Fayettevillian now living in Colorado, tenor John Daniecki, and baritone Jason S. McKinney – have all been heard in NC with some frequency. The baritone had the most to do and did it all with keen engagement and interpretive distinction. He was really “with” this piece, often appearing to sing along (under his breath) with the men of the chorus behind him, his eyes twinkling as the texts unfolded. The soprano was splendid in all respects and radiant where needed, projecting warmth of tone and crisp diction. Daniecki’s roasted swan was unique in this listener’s experience, so it’s a pleasure to report that he escaped from the tongues of fire just in time to ensure his ability to sing this short number again another day. (Thanks be to the Lord in His heaven, as the monks might say.) There’s a good bit for the soloists to do, and these soloists all did well, but it’s a choral and orchestral piece, and the choruses – adults and youngsters – were consistently wonderful, too, as was the orchestra. If this performance had been recorded for commercial release – something CVNC writers tend to mention with considerable frequency when discussing Carmina, which has enjoyed more than its fair share of outstanding performances here in NC – there might have been need for one or two little re-do patches, but for the most part, this was a standard-setting performance that is sure to linger long in the memory of those who heard it. Alongside the soloists, choruses, and often-stellar orchestra, Fakhouri deserves a lot of the credit, for it was his conception of the score, his astute judgment of its changing tempos, dynamics, phrasing, attacks, releases, and overall lines, and his exemplary leadership that made this glorious rendition so unforgettable.

Music lovers here owe him a great deal. He will be missed.