On February 12, the Chapel Hill Philharmonia dodged another weather bullet and gave a brief concert in Hill Hall on the UNC campus. The program was ambitious and would have challenged even major-league groups – Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture and Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (a.k.a. the “Enigma” Variations) are hardly child’s play. Donald Oehler conducted the orchestra of 55 or so devoted musicians, including an organist (for an optional, “ad lib” part that is often omitted in live performances – and sometimes on recordings, too), before an audience of perhaps that size, consisting, I’m guessing, of friends and family, mostly. There were some problems with ensemble and intonation, here and there, and some stray notes, but I hasten to say that performances of these pieces – and especially the Elgar – by some of those aforementioned major-league outfits are often plagued by glitches, too. Thomas Beecham said that what’s really important is to start together and end together, and the CHP did that. (Sir Thomas also said that what comes in between doesn’t matter very much, but that’s another story.)

The Overture has long been a personal favorite because it conveys the essence of what most people think when they hear the composer’s name. It is dramatic, atmospheric, and exciting, and the performance had a lot going for it. The Elgar is one of the great orchestral tours de force of the 20th century and maybe for all time. It was decently paced and played with a great deal of spirit and evident commitment. Hearing it with some of the organ part was a treat, although more organ would have been welcome. Readers who want to know more about the composer and this piece should visit the Elgar Society’s excellent website, at http://www.elgar.org/ (which we’ve had in our links page for a long, long time) and, specifically, http://www.elgar.org/3enigma.htm , http://users.rcn.com/rfinley/enigma.htm [inactive 4/10] (for photos of the subjects of the variations), and then read Gordon Lee’s excellent Elgar Society Journal article (Sep. 1994), at http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/4056/jig1.html [inactive 4/05].

That said, this column isn’t a review, per se, but an article in praise of this and other community music organizations. The CHP, the Town’s community orchestra, started life as the Village Orchestra (and, for a time, was referred to – affectionately, of course – as “the Village idiots”). It was launched by community musicians, including Joel Carter, whose percussion playing was never the equal of his singing or choral directing, and Edgar Alden, whose conducting was a good deal stiffer than his violin playing. It didn’t give concerts back then, but every so often the group would invite friends to come to “open public rehearsals” (or, as Oehler remarked from the stage on February 12, open public “acts”), generally in the band room. Ruth Johnsen and Brent Wissick led its “events” for a while, and I remember a particularly brash reading of Harty’s version of Handel’s Water Music in that confined space…. Oehler took over a while back, and the recently re-christened CH Phil. is celebrating its 22nd anniversary this year, giving real concerts in a real concert hall, concerts that are listed in serious places like CVNC‘ s calendar. The musicians play for pleasure, but that doesn’t mean they are slouches – these folks come from all parts of Chapel Hill and Orange County, and the ranks include doctors, teachers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, and other professionals. And Oehler’s leadership has clearly transformed the ensemble. His personal involvement in chamber music at professional and amateur levels – he heads an annual chamber music workshop in Chapel Hill that draws players from all over the world – has surely contributed to the success the CHP now enjoys.

In the overall scheme of things, having community orchestras is a smart thing to do. The dog-eat-dog business of professional music has turned more than a few fine artists into automatons, and many people, including those who have been professionally trained, find it better to do something else to put food on the table and to practice “art” for art’s sake and for pleasure. One finds this not only in community orchestras but also in all walks of musical life – in choirs, for example – and in dance companies, the theatre, etc. We are richly blessed to have a fine regional orchestra in Raleigh, but the community groups and the town-&-gown groups and the student groups and the beginner groups are all-important components of our overall cultural mix. It behooves music lovers to pay heed to these second- and third-tier organizations, to support them, and from time to time to attend their performances. We’d be a whole lot worse off without them. And one more thing, from this wizened old scribe – these outfits may not be as polished, technically, as their full-pay-&-allowances cousins in those pro bands, but more often than not, the music-making heard at the community level is as committed as that offered for high prices by the big boys (and girls), ’cause the members of these groups really do play for the love of the music.

The Chapel Hill Philharmonic does it again on May 6, when the program will include Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. See our calendar in April for details.