In a pitched battle on a cold winter night, the acoustical environment of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral narrowly defeated the North Carolina Symphony before a sold-out audience. While it must be acknowledged that where one sits in the cathedral will affect what one hears, I was fortunate to be seated in what many describe as an optimum place to listen to music. Reverberation is a given in any building of this size with hard-surface floors, walls, and ceiling, as is the room’s tendency to make lower pitches louder than they would be in a less-reverberant hall.

Performing in this environment poses significant problems for an orchestra: winds and brass dominate strings to the point that even conductor David Glover‘s attempt to ameliorate this balance problem by re-positioning his forces was unsuccessful. The louder the playing, the more it is affected by reverberation. Therefore, the best orchestral sounds of the evening were the quiet passages played by strings alone. The physical positioning of the orchestra in the front of the nave, spread out in only a few rows from transept to transept, was not conducive to good ensemble work. Playing under the already-iconic dome and the high-ceilinged transepts resulted in loss of clarity, especially in the strings and in inner voices. While other cathedrals (such as Washington National Cathedral) have dealt with these problems by staging concerts from the back of the nave, that solution is only possible when seating uses chairs rather than the fixed pews of Raleigh’s new Roman Catholic edifice.

The concert opened with two pieces which were effective in the large space: contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (“Brothers”) and a sonata for brass septet by Giovanni Battista Buonamente, who lived from ca. 1595 to 1642. Fratres used the orchestra’s string sections only, augmented by a percussionist playing a three-note figure on bass drum and wood block which served as a bookmark between sections of a series of variations. This scoring is one of some twenty different scorings approved by the composer; this 1977 work has been used in at least a dozen films. Its quiet perambulations through a simple harmonic progression were very well played, needing only to have the cathedral’s lights dimmed to create a complementary setting. (It would also have been beneficial to have some information about this work in the program, but there was none.) At the work’s conclusion, Glover kept his hands raised, lest applause destroy the meditative mood, until, from the tribune (the rear-gallery organ/choir area), the wonderful sonority of seven brass players burst forth. Their sound took full advantage of the room’s acoustics, producing perhaps the best sonority of the evening. One anticipates equally-inspiring sounds from the soon-to-be-installed Fisk organ as it speaks from that lofty gallery.

Music of J.S. Bach followed: the first Brandenburg Concerto, and the beloved Air (“on the G String”) from the third orchestral suite. While the Air, with its melody-plus-accompaniment structure, was lovely to hear, the concerto was clear evidence that fast-moving, intricate Baroque polyphony does not work from the front of the cathedral’s nave. When the winds were playing, the string sounds became lost in space. Because of the difference in the way the acoustic treats the different instruments, Elizabeth Phelps’ masterful playing of the violino piccolo could not match the volume of the oboe in duet. The Brandenburg No. 1 score includes two parts for corno di caccia, or hunting horns. Using French horns instead is commonplace, but the French horns’ more opulent sound is too heavy to reproduce what Bach had in mind. (The best modern equivalent to the hunting horn is the flugel horn, but it is usually consigned to jazz bands – more’s the pity.) Because of the acoustics, a single double-bass player easily balanced the full ensemble. In the third movement Allegro, Glover chose not to conduct the hemiola accents (duple accents within a triple meter); those quintessentially-Baroque rhythms would have been stronger had they been conducted as such.

For Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a return to the composer’s original chamber-scoring of only 13 instruments would have likely produced a better ensemble, particularly had those thirteen been in the rear gallery. With the larger orchestra (in need of money, Wagner reluctantly agreed to publish this very private work – a Christmas Day present to his wife Cosima – and expanded the scoring to attract more buyers), the same balance problems that plagued the Brandenburg Concerto were present, despite Glover’s placing the winds in front of the strings instead of behind, to avoid being totally under the dome. Glover’s tempo, faster than one usually hears this piece, was closer to that of the first performance on the staircase of Wagner’s home.

The concert closed with the first four movements (the program listed all six) of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite, a set of stylized dances for string orchestra. The string sound was excellent, but Glover took the concluding “Bransles” (loosely translated as a “brawl”) as marked, Presto, once more challenging the cathedral’s acoustics and being rewarded with a distinct lack of clarity. The lovely second movement, “Pavane,” is essentially a transcription of a French Renaissance madrigal, “Belle qui tian ma vie captive dans tes yeux.” One needs to think of this madrigal text when performing Warlock’s setting, so that accents will be in the right place. (“Peter Warlock,” by the way, was the pen name of Philip Heseltine (1894-1930), a British composer and music critic who also dabbled in the occult.)

It’s not clear what made any of this evening’s music “Music for a Winter’s Eve,” as none of it had any seasonal connections, nor were there any apparent relationships between any of the works on the program. Nevertheless, it attracted a large audience. If more concerts are planned for this venue, more consideration needs to be given to taking the room’s acoustics into account.