The Symphony Orchestra of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, composed of students from high school through college and graduate school, dazzled the audience at the splendid Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. The concert, conducted by faculty member, James Allbritten, opens the season and augurs well for future endeavors. The stage was full of energetic young musicians, even a large viola section, a rarity in recent seasons!

The concert opened with the energizing Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla by Mikhail Glinka. Starting at a very rapid tempo, which soon settled down to a more comfortable pace – over-drive, as it were, the strings were crisp and clean in the rapid forte sections and remarkably accurate in the difficult piano scale passages; great opener for the concert!

Winner of the annual UNCSA Concerto Competition, percussionist Scott O’Toole played the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra by American Composer, Joseph Schwantner, by memory, with daring and panache. The concerto is in three movements, the first and third of which the soloist plays from the back of the stage on risers, above the orchestra. Both movements are fast-paced and often loud – one might expect as much from percussion – but the middle movement, marked Misterioso is just that – mysterious. Bells of all kinds abound – tuned cow bells hang overhead, a row of antique cymbals (crotales) cross in front and a plethora of triangles and cymbals fill the mid-ground. Sometimes struck, more often brushed or scraped, and sometimes even bowed, the broad range of color and expression is astounding. A gong, struck repeatedly while being submerged in a tub of water bends its pitch with the depth of immersion. Throughout, O’Toole was superb!  Granted, although a casual auditor might not know if he missed a note, rhythmically he was always exactly with the orchestra and dominated his part with mastery. Special mention to the orchestral percussion, especially the mallet players and the tympani, who so often interact with the solo part!

(A more detailed description of the Schwantner Concerto for Percussion may be found in a CVNC review of the February 8, 2008 performance by Dame Evelyn Glennie.)

The “Great” Symphony in C by Franz Schubert filled the second half of the concert and by its very length (nearly 50 minutes) provided a challenge to the endurance and concentration of the young orchestra. In the absence of program notes, Maestro Allbritten humorously explained the confusion over the numbering of the Schubert symphonies and why the “Great” C Major has been called the 7th, 8th and 9th at various times. In fact, the symphony did not have its first performance until 1839, 11 years after Schubert’s death (at age 31), with Felix Mendelssohn conducting, and Robert Schumann penning his famous review in 1840, describing Schubert’s “heavenly length.” (See: “The Heavenly Length of Schubert’s Music,” by Scott Burnham at

Schubert is also the supposed originator of the theory describing the length of a movement as depending on the power and intensity of the movement’s climax, and is often taunted as a prime offender of his own theory. Be that as it may, this evening’s performance never felt long!  Maestro Allbritten paced the sections of each movement so well that the performance sounded professional. Indeed, the orchestra only betrayed its student origins a couple of times – a very sharp leading tone in the alto trombone and some immature tone and intonation in certain reed passages in the slow movement. Otherwise, the playing was remarkable!

I was delighted to hear the dotted rhythms assimilated to the triplets, a bone of contention pitting “purists” (period performance enthusiasts) vs. “literalists” (led by Georg Szell among others), finally resolved in favor of the purists. Doubling the horn section was a wise initiative given both the endurance issue and the large string section (62 in the program, 58 on stage).

James Allbritten appears to have inherited the role of conductor of the student orchestra as he is scheduled to conduct three of the four concerts, the fourth being a Russian extravaganza conducted by Chancellor Mauceri at the end of April. Allbritten was exceptionally clear in the complex Schwantner score with its incessant meter changes. And the Schubert was well-paced and balanced throughout. Only in the last movement (1153 measures long!) did he resort to extreme gestures, perhaps as the jockey resorts to his quirt in the final dash to the finish line.