There seemed to be fewer proud parents and ambivalent siblings on hand than usual in the Stevens Center for the season’s final concert of the North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony. Our state’s major regional and metropolitan orchestras have made great progress during the last decade, but all suffer from “string anemia” compared to the 100- plus musicians of the top major symphonies. This superbly played concert by the enthusiastic and talented NCSA musicians gave ample proof of what we are missing in the Romantic repertory. The second and final works were conducted by Ransom Wilson, while the first was led by one of his conducting students.

A dramatic commanding gesture, perhaps of triumph or contempt, opens Beethoven’s “Coriolanus” Overture, Op. 62 (1802). The musical development portrays the hero’s rising tide of indecision and inner turmoil, followed by the collapse of his pride and subsequent stoic self-destruction. The score keeps the full orchestra, especially the string sections, almost constantly busy. Student conductor Valentino Piran has already built up an impressive resume in his native Italy. He founded and directs Orchestra Palladio, in Vicenza, formed of professional musicians. Without reference to a score, Piran confidently led a vital and well-prepared performance. The ensemble between and within sections was outstanding. Sloppy intonation or attacks in this piece could have made pea soup of the orchestral textures. Musical strands were exceptionally clear with fine prominent details from the horns and especially the bassoons.

Conductor Wilson introduced both of his selections from the podium with an interesting mix of germane musical points and personal reminiscence. Composer Keith Gates (1948-2007) had been a fellow NCSA student with Wilson in 1966 when the school was still small. After high school and two years of college at NCSA, Gates went to the Juilliard School in New York City where he studied with Vincent Persichetti and Hugo Weisgal. While he was still in Winston-Salem, Gates had composed some music for August Strindberg’s play The Ghosts. Much of that music found its way into the composer’s Concert Sonatina for Alto Saxophone, flute/piccolo, oboe, two clarinets, two saxophones (tenor and baritone, I believe), and double-bass. Wilson had programmed this delightful chamber piece for an earlier memorial concert after the composer’s tragic death from pancreatic cancer. The composer’s consummate lyricism, combined with witty playfulness, is immediately winning. NCSA faculty member Taimur Sullivan played the solo part brilliantly. The constant shifting timbres and rhythms were delightful. The composer’s website has information and MP3 recordings of an extraordinarily diverse repertory.

Wilson recounted the 15-year gestation period of the Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) from a tone-poem to a five-movement version to the final 1908 version, shorn of the extra (originally second) “Blumine” (“Flower”) movement. Wilson sais the manuscript of the composer’s last version, in the Yale Library, which he recently examined, contains numerous changes. Late-19th-century Viennese audiences were shocked by Mahler’s bizarre collage of folk music, lieder, tone-painting, and street music, culminating in music of dark, spiritual despair. The first movement represents “Nature and Man in Nature.” The second was called “Full Sail,” reflecting the composer’s mood of success. The third, named “Shipwrecked,” is a macabre funeral march inspired by a parodistic print, “The Hunter’s Funeral,” by Jacques Callot. Animals as pallbearers bear the Hunter’s coffin. While some are sad, most are quite delighted. They are followed by a disreputable band of animal musicians. The finale, labeled “Dall’inferno al Paradiso,” expresses a heart wounded to its depths. Wilson initially heard Mahler’s First Symphony in a rehearsal in Italy when he was a member of one of the earliest NCSA European tours, and he was profoundly moved.

Wilson directed a taut, beautifully molded performance of Mahler’s kaleidoscopic First Symphony, securing a vast dynamic range from the most hushed pppp to the shattering forte that jerks the listener from the fade to silence ending of the funeral march. His alert and eager musicians followed him through ever abrupt shifts of dynamics and tempo. What a delight it was to hear the seven double-basses and dozen cellists really dig their bows into the Ländler dance rhythms of the second movement! The string sections’ tone was rich and warm, and the woodwinds and brasses were strongly characterized. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard this work played by regional and touring professional orchestras. Some of those might have had eight French horns. How much more striking aurally and visually it was as Wilson’s twelve horn players followed Mahler’s directions to play while standing during the closing bars! Their rousing “whoops” during the close of the first movement were wonderful.  Wilson and his players received a hearty and prolonged spontaneous standing ovation.