The Chapel Hill Philharmonia offered its mid-year program, promoted as “A Wintry Mix,” on a weeknight that happened to be one of the warmest evenings in recent memory. The orchestra usually performs on weekends but there was a problem with the availability of the venue, Hill Hall. Attendance may have been off, slightly, but the crowd seemed fairly typical in terms of size.

This is one of our several outstanding community orchestras – we are richly blessed to have so many here. The CHP roster lists 72 string players and a total of 99 instrumentalists. All play for the sheer love of music and the performance thereof and, as we’ve noted from time to time in our reviews, this shows in almost everything they do. Yes there are occasional splats in the brass, squawks in the woodwinds, and blurs in the strings, and the sections are not 100% meshed, 100% of the time, but the size of the ensemble, the fact that there are truly enough strings to ensure decent balance, and the ensemble’s overall enthusiasm go a long way toward making everything much more than just all right. And everything about these concerts reflects favorable efforts to present music in outstanding circumstances – from Mark Furth’s informative program notes to the post-concert receptions with luscious home-made goodies. Readers who patronize only the “professional” outfits in our midst are missing some great evenings with friends and neighbors and some very fine performances of some outstanding music, too.*

This program began with a robust, stylistically anachronistic reading of Haydn’s Symphony No. 104. It’s called the “London” Symphony but in fact the last dozen of Papa H’s orchestral compositions were all written for the English capital. Anyway, we don’t hear enough Haydn, so this performance was a treat on several counts. And Music Director and Conductor Donald L. Oehler had “moved the furniture,” as the expression goes in this business, reseating the usually massed violins with firsts on the left, seconds on the right, and the violas and cellos inside. This did wonders for the sound, allowing perceptibly greater clarity from the violas and cellos, not to mention the improved audibility of the divided strings (which often play different musical lines, of course…). This was a big, bold, often exhilarating reading, more boisterous than the slimmed-down HIP (historically-informed performance) bands project, for sure, but enjoyable nonetheless. At several points, one felt like standing up to cheer.

Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings is not often heard, and that’s a puzzlement, for it’s lovely music, and the second movement, in particular, is one of the most gorgeous quasi-late-romantic things in captivity. The reading didn’t always sparkle but was welcome enough, and the crowd responded with plentiful applause.

Oehler is a fine clarinetist who appears too rarely in that capacity, but on this occasion he took up his instrument for a solo turn in Weber’s lovely 9-minute Concertino, demonstrating once again what we have been missing as he’s done more and more stick-waving and less actual playing. His sensitive and technically-polished reading would have been welcome in any of our major metropolitan concert venues. The guest conductor for this number was Mérida Negrete, who is also a wonderful clarinetist, and under her skilled leadership the orchestra outdid itself, turning in a splendid performance that mirrored Oehler’s own. This was, surely, the highlight of the evening.

The finale was Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slav,” the potboiler that quotes the same Russian hymn used in the even more noisy “1812” Overture but that otherwise omits cannons. That’s a good thing, too, because although Hill Hall, with its fairly new seats and carpeting, has been significantly improved by the addition of sound-absorbing canvas panels (five at the back and six around the stage) plus a shell that provides some redirection of the sound, the room is still very, very lively.  If forced to pronounce a judgment, I’d say it’s been tamed a bit but large ensembles playing forte or above still need to exercise caution so they don’t blow away their audiences.

The Chapel Hill Philharmonia’s next concert will be given on May 1. For details, see our calendar.

Finally…, some might say that getting to these sorts of things is half the fun,but it is absolutely no fun trying to find a parking place in Chapel Hill on week nights, most of the time. UNC unquestionably tops Duke in this regard, if it wants bragging rights. Parking meters run till 9 p.m. Empty parking lots on the central campus, within easy walking distance of public halls, are closed off till after performances start. The planetarium lot has an attendant on duty, taking up money (at $1.50/hour), until at least 10 p.m. (If even a tiny portion of the parking revenue benefitted the arts, it might make all this a tad more palatable….) Yep, this is a mess for UNC, for UNC’s image, and for tax-paying citizens who might be more favorably inclined to attend performances at UNC if the campus were even slightly more welcoming. It’s gotten so bad that the Music Director of the Chapel Hill Philharmonia actually apologized to the audience before the start of this concert. Something must be done.