Duke-based pianist Elizabeth Tomlin was trained, in part, at UNC, so it was something of a homecoming for her to play Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in Hill Hall, accompanied by the Chapel Hill Philharmonia. She’s a wonderful artist, and she made a very strong case for this potentially problematic work, one in which the soloist has so many heartwarming turns if only the orchestra can avoid engulfing the guest. Happily, that was the case on this occasion – conductor Donald L. Oehler seemed to take just the right approach with his substantial orchestra, urging them to lay low during the soloist’s prime bits. The CHP did so, admirably, resulting in one of the more felicitous performances of this tried-and-true concerto heard here in many moons. Only the horns seemed to miss the mark, and then only occasionally. It was so good, indeed, that I’d urge anyone to go out of the way to hear Tomlin again. And indeed, it was good on the orchestra’s part, too – this was surely among its best performances to date.

Alas, things did not get underway so promisingly. Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 began heavily and with less than complete unanimity, and although things improved in the second and following movements, it never really took fire, partly because the orchestra – of roughly 85 players – was just too large for Mozart, and never mind that the hall is too lively for such large ensembles unless they are under positive control at all times.

The second number on the first half was the famous sequence of dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. The Polovtsian Dances may be among the best-known ballets in captivity, thanks to the fact that so many of its tunes were mined for the early ‘50s Broadway show Kismet (as concertmaster Mark Furth’s illustrated program notes reminded us). These colorful pieces sounded fine, for the most part, aside from some overly rambunctious piccolo licks. The crowd was as enthusiastic as the musicians.

At the beginning of the second half there was a touching tribute and presentation to French horn player and longtime CHP officer Jerry Hulka. Garth Molyneux composed a fanfare for four horns that was played in his honor, and CHP President Dick Clark spoke warmly of the honoree’s distinguished service, noting that his professional career was in medicine but that his passion was music.

At the start of the concert, too, there’d been remarks by Oehler, on the occasion of the April 21 death of longtime violinist and founding member Donald S. Schier. He was a distinguished specialist and teacher of Romance languages who had come to Chapel Hill because of musical friends here. The concert was played in his memory.

The Maestro will be on sabbatical in the spring semester, so the CHP’s concerts will be led by others. On February 14, Evan Feldman will conduct, and pianist Alice Tien will be the soloist. On May 2, Yoram Youngerman will conduct, and the soloist will be the winner of the orchestra’s 2010 Young Artist Concerto Competition. We’ll list these events in our calendar in due course.