The student orchestra of the North Carolina School of the Arts has begun what promises to be a brilliant closing season for long-time faculty member and conductor, Serge Zehnacker. The opening concert, on Saturday, October 22, 2005, in the Stevens Center, was titled “Solisti Symphony,” no doubt reflecting the slightly smaller than usual ensemble– limited winds and brass – and especially the group of 15 soloists featured in the highlight of the evening, Arnold Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9.

The program began with a delightful presentation of the familiar Overture to The Barber of Seville (Elmer Fudd’s haircut) by Gioacchino Rossini. In Rossini’s day, each opera house was allowed to change details and orchestrations to fit the local conditions. For example, the so-called “German version” of a Rossini overture adds a full complement of trombones and even tuba. But here the large ensemble of strings was joined by woodwinds in pairs and only five brass players, implementing one of the smaller versions of the Overture. The strings were cleanly precise, as were the winds. Only an occasional intonation problem (sharp tends to be the case) marred the wind section, especially the piccolo and the otherwise lovely horn solo.

The Schönberg Chamber Symphony has not been played in Winston-Salem since the Winston-Salem Symphony’s Impact XX series, devoted to 20th-century music and performed at SECCA, in the early 1990s. The very name “Schoenberg” evokes impressions of difficult and dissonant, long and scary music. That’s not at all true for the musically informed, and certainly not true for this 22-minute work.

All in one single movement, with clearly separated sections, the Chamber Symphony starts with a pile (for want of a better word) of fourths progressing one by one from low to high. This thematic feature returns several times and each time provides a key by which the listener can identify both “déjà vu” and the new direction of what’s to come. All the soloists played exceedingly well, aptly led by Maestro Zehnacker, who clearly relished the task at hand.

One of my favorite experiences in live performances is to capture what is indeed particular to that hall, that ensemble, on that evening. For example, tempos change according to whether the hall has a dry or a reverberant acoustic, or whether the weather is humid or dry, and with the disposition of the performers. A charming idiosyncrasy of the evening’s performance of the Schönberg was the prominence of the contrabassoon, with its rather organic sound punctuated by a mechanical clicking not unlike my grandmother’s Singer sewing machine. And brilliant solo violin-playing by graduate student Elisa Friedrich reminded me of the superior quality of the teaching at NCSA.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, in d minor, is a major masterpiece, far too infrequently heard in these parts. It recalls other works of Mozart whose syncopated opening melody is foreboding – the “Haffner” Symphony and the Overture to Don Giovanni. The orchestra played well, although the large number of strings (20 violins!) tended to drown out the woodwinds and even the soloist, at times. These earnest and passionate young violinists often produced a harsh and strident sound in the forte passages, especially on the E-string, which in our day is essentially a steel string. Tender and loving care to tone rather than to dynamics alone might temper this excess.

The piano soloist, Skye Gao, is an extraordinary young talent whom I have had the pleasure of hearing before. Unfortunately, tonight was not her best performance – it was marred by several missed notes – but when she was in her groove, she was unbelievable. She has a lightness of touch in legato sections and a clarity and speed in her scale passages that are truly impressive. Also apparent was a broad view and conception of the piece as a whole and of Beethoven’s fascinating cadenzas in particular. I predict a remarkable career for Gao. She was admirably accompanied by conductor Serge Zehnacker.