An enthusiastic crowd filled most of the recently renovated UNCG Auditorium (formerly known as Aycock Auditorium) for a brilliantly played concert by the UNCG Symphony Orchestra, under the firm direction of faculty member, Dr. Kevin Geraldi, and featuring cello soloist Lynn Harrell.

The program was well within the grasp of the young musicians, and the precise and clean execution of most of the program implied careful and meticulous rehearsal. The inclusion of the colorful (and difficult) Schelomo by Swiss composer Ernest Bloch was a daring and bold challenge to the musicians, a perfect foil for soloist Harrell, and a pleasure for the audience. The only work on the second half of the program, Modeste Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, originally composed for piano in 1874 but most often heard in the orchestration (1922) by French composer, Maurice Ravel, is always a crowd-pleaser and in this performance elicited a standing ovation!

The concert opened with the fourth attempt by Ludwig Van Beethoven to write an appropriate overture for his only opera, at the time entitled Leonore. The opera (and also the final name of the overture) is Fidelio, and celebrates the rewards of marital constancy. Winds in pairs, alternating with the bold and rash dotted rhythm which opens the overture, unfortunately suffered opening night jitters as the pairs rarely attacked together. But nerves eventually calmed and attention focused to provide an otherwise clean and crisp performance. The strings were somewhat sparse, a disadvantage in the quirky acoustics of the auditorium (known for its un-blending and directional reflection of sounds from the stage) so that first violins were often overshadowed by seconds and violas.

Harrell entered the stage holding his cello over his head, and centering his pick on a pad at the end of the special rectangular podium. He inaudibly tapped the tip of his bow on the strings to check his tuning. Then he listened, as we did, while the orchestra introduced us to the somber and spare atmosphere surrounding King Solomon, with its Levantine mysteriousness, exotic melodies and unresolved harmonies. At times when he played, it was as the gruff ruler and patriarch, at others as the lover, and often in the futile spirit of “vanity of vanities.” Harrell’s voice, the cello, sang (as I once heard his great father, Mack Harrell sing), cajoled, scolded and soared, varying character and color, touching and terrifying, stunning and consoling. The audience recognized this tour de force unanimously. Harrell thanked the students for all their hard work with a moving performance of Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2, “without the piano,” gorgeous and rich, often so soft as to be more sighing than singing!

Pictures, as musicians have shortened the title of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, was also exceedingly well-played with a minimum of fuss and mostly excellent intonation (one dicey moment with some sharp notes in the bassoons, a couple of flat notes on the saxophone… ) and great balance from the upstage musicians, which included the brass, woodwinds and percussion and many of the strings. There were outstanding solos from the principal trumpet and principal horn on their respective “Promenades,” those segments when the viewer strolls from one picture to the next and by the excellent alto saxophonist whose name was left off the program. The tuba player, in the highest range of the instrument, gave us a harrowing version of “Bydło,” the cow-drawn cart of the poorest peasants, while by contrast, the woodwinds excelled at picking at their shells, staccato-style, in the “Ballet of the Unborn Chicks in Their Shells.”

“Baba Yaga,” living in her fowl-footed shack was appropriately frightening, but led into the only disappointment of the evening, a slow, glossy and unaccented start to the “Great Gate of Kiev” followed by a hurried plainsong hymn, seemingly out of context. I was reminded of the sound of the marvelous Big Ten college bands with their “attack-less” entrances, akin to the consonant-free style of barbershop chorus singing. Surely such a thing is unthinkable in Mussorgsky’s piano version, even if unspecified in Ravel’s score. However, when the piece continued with the incontrovertible accents and shotgun attacks (double-note), balance and intensity returned to confirm this as one of the most remarkable finales in musical literature. Bravo to the young musicians of the UNCG student orchestra and bravo to Maestro Geraldi for excellent leadership and imaginative programming!

–edited 12/5/16 as two paragraphs had not transferred.