On the afternoon of October 27, Kenan Recital Hall at Peace College was the venue for a concert by the North Carolina Wind Orchestra. With the North Carolina State Fair and many competing arts events on the calendar, the audience remained at about 30. Had there been a full house to absorb the sound of the wind instruments, it might have been a different concert altogether.

Kenan is a lovely, intimate setting for chamber music in general, and it includes an organ with pipes that formed a fascinating backdrop for the NCWO, but it was, in my estimation, a poor space in which to showcase this relatively new ensemble and this program in particular. From where I was seated toward the back, where the rising floor allows the best possible view of the players, one could barely see their faces above the solid black music stands that were placed straight across the front of the stage.

Michael Votta, Jr., Music Director and Conductor, verbally offered supplemental program notes in order more fully to engage the audience. In some cases, the explanations seemed extended, but he is a lively speaker and his comments made the works more interesting.

One of the most delightful and popular of Mozart’s works is his opera The Magic Flute , so I looked forward to a light presentation of its Overture to open the program. Apply the previously stated circumstances, and the results were far from light. Would that I could hear it again by the same ensemble in Duke Gardens, where I have heard the Duke Wind Symphony, or at least in a space like the Carolina Theatre in Durham, where an even larger ensemble from the NCWO has elicited favorable reviews in the past. Since, as a former Spectator critic once reported, the ensemble includes many of our region’s top artists, one can only presume that the venue was the mistake. I look forward to hearing them again in a different room.

The second work was Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto (for piano, violin, and 13 wind instruments) a composition that requires more fondness for contemporary music than I could muster. It featured some brilliant performing artists – Thomas Warburton, piano, and Richard Luby, violin – and one could only admire the imagination the two virtuosi mustered in presenting and interpreting their scores. Warburton opened the work, Luby’s violin then spoke, and the woodwinds scattered a chorus of notes. The piano music then welled up to a crash, after which the ethereal violin entered, plaintive against ordered cacophony. The pleading of the orchestra and the final forgiveness represented by the composition (and as explained by the conductor) was an exercise in program music. It was difficult to recognize the separation of the movements, so our commentary is general rather than specific.

After intermission, the classics reigned, but the Rondino (Op.Posth.) by Beethoven, a wind octet composed for an outdoor event hosted by an Austrian prince, might better have been left out of doors. Marcato horns underlined folk melodies taken up by the oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. Sheer melody was extremely well played, but the work was difficult to enjoy in the confines of Kenan Recital Hall. The group’s dilemma, as it seeks a regular venue, underscores the shortage of available and affordable halls in the capital.

The program concluded with the four-movement Serenade in C Minor, K.388/384a, by Mozart, the sections of which are marked Allegro, Andante, Minuetto in canone , and Finale. In remarks before the performance, the conductor said that he considers this work more on the level of inspiration of an opera or a symphony than a mere wind serenade. As he said, it is definitely not garden party music, but even Bo Newsome’s usual sweet oboe seemed to have an unpleasant edge. Shrill oboes and clarinets followed a comparatively mellow chorale segment, played by the horns, one of which delivered a nice solo in the second movement. The instruments remained shrill and sharp even as they turned out a serenade melody in the third movement. The work concluded – mercifully – with a merry-go-round rhythm and a joyful racket!

We look forward to hearing the North Carolina Wind Orchestra in Meymandi Concert Hall, where the full 50-piece ensemble is scheduled to perform on January 4 and May 23. It would be interesting to hear one of the group’s comparatively smaller ensembles, as well, in that space. Perhaps the programming will allow it.