The North Carolina Wind Orchestra, in less than seven years, has quickly evolved into a major musical force in the Triangle. The 50-member NCWO has already offered a number of unusual and little known pieces written expressly for wind orchestra. (They also play arrangements but these are kept to a minimum.) That these professional players perform without pay while providing top-level concerts is a tribute to their love of the literature and to their tireless conductor and music director, Michael Votta, Jr.

On Saturday night, January 4, 2002, the NCWO presented its latest concert in BTI’s Meymandi Hall. All of the orchestra’s established qualities were in evidence, especially on the program’s first half.

The opening piece was the short (ten minutes) but brilliant First Suite in E flat for Military Band, Op. 28, No. 1, by Gustav Holst, one of the pioneers of symphonic band music. The same marvelous knack for color, rhythm and climax, well-known from his over-played The Planets , is here in miniature. Essentially a theme and variations, the first movement opens with a lyrical, sweet melody played by the euphoniums and tubas with the lower instruments joining in as the melody is repeated in sprightly waves of sound. Halfway though the movement the music turns ominous and mysterious and then builds slowly to a thundering, glorious finale. The second movement is a toe-tapping jig, bringing to mind jaunty sailors in striped shirts and ribboned hats. The last movement is a catchy march with arresting quick changes in tempo and a big finish.

Throughout, the musicians displayed astonishing precision and confidence, a nod to Votta’s razor-sharp gestures and cues as well as his thorough knowledge of this category of music. The rich variety of sound and the subtle use of dynamics made the piece go well beyond the stereotypical idea of a “band.”

Finishing up the first half were three brief pieces by Percy Grainger. While not originally tied together as a suite, Votta rightly sees them as related (they were composed between 1916 and 1920 and each is based on a folk-like tune). “Children’s March” at first seems merely light sing-song, too plain for symphonic treatment. But Grainger retains our interest by soon adding just enough dissonance, some unusual instrumentation (piano, bass oboe and contrabassoon) and even voices (members of the orchestra sang several vocalises, an enchanting effect.) The piece builds nicely then ends on a lovely low ebb. “Colonial March” is a sentimental melody, cozy and nostalgic, composed as a remembrance of Grainger’s native Australia. Again, the composer saves the music from kitsch by satisfyingly rich orchestrations and surprising little elements such, as the sudden appearance of the harp. “Molly on the Shore,” the only one of the three based on a real folktune, makes it easy to envision swirling dancers, its big opening dramatically transformed into an dreamy, otherworldly mid-section, then ending with an easy lightness.

Votta and his players had obviously well rehearsed the little waves of rhythmic emphases and the just-right tempos that kept things moving along nicely. The evident joy in his conducting added to this extremely enjoyable performance.

For the second half, Votta presented Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in a version by composer-arranger-conductor John Boyd, Director of Bands at Indiana State University, with some additional arranging by Votta himself. Boyd’s stated reason for doing yet another orchestration (there have been at least two dozen attempts since the famous Ravel version in 1922) is to give the music a more “Russian” sound. This was certainly achieved in the mistiness of “The Old Castle,” the lumbering rumble of “The Ox-cart (Bydlo),” the eerie mystery of “The Hut of Baba Yaga” and the thrilling power of “The Great Gate.” In these, the huge sound of the massed instruments had greater impact than in the familiar Ravel and, indeed, gave these sections a colder, rawer edge. Also impressive was the extremely varied use of percussion (requiring six players), especially the lines for xylophones and marimbas.

In some of the quieter (and un-Russian) moments, such as “Tuileries,” “Unhatched Chicks” and “Marketplace at Limoges,” the requisite airiness was missing. In these sections, Votta’s approach was overly careful, even four-square, robbing the music of its sparkle (lack of rehearsal? difficulty of execution?). Even in the other, grander moments, the pacing was curiously controlled and evened out, the climaxes lacking thrust and excitement. Despite the less than ideal performance, the players were nonetheless impressive, obviously relishing the challenge and attacking this major undertaking with gusto.

If nothing else, this concert re-confirmed the soundness of relying mostly on works expressly written for wind orchestra. There are so many out there and the NCWO has proved to be a shining steward of that literature.