Neither cold drizzle nor imminent final exams discouraged the good turnout of music lovers in Memorial Auditorium for an imaginative program of the University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. Musical Director Tonu Kalam sandwiched two Romantic pieces that are relatively rarely performed around a suite drawn from a twentieth century British opera. 

The overture to Les francs-juges by Hector Berlioz (1803-69) is all that remains from his first opera. He worked on the opera during 1825-26 and abandoned it when any performance was impossible. Most of the manuscript was destroyed with only the overture surviving as his first orchestral score. A march was later adapted as the “March to the Scaffold,” the fourth movement of the Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14. The opera would have had a Fidelio-like rescue plot with the heroine freeing her lover from the clutches of the Vehmgericht, a medieval German secret court whose tyranny arouses a popular uprising.

The ominous, threatening slow introduction is interrupted by a massive tsunami from Berlioz’s augmented brass. It reappears in the Allegro portion. A three-note figure intoned by trombones and tubas (the later replace the original pair of ophicleides) represents the Vehmic court. The triumph of the heroes is represented by a lovely, catchy melody introduced by the violins. Other features are a chorale for winds and a fugal episode before Berlioz’s ground-breaking orchestration of the finale.

Kalam led his huge all student orchestra in a firmly controlled and stylish interpretation. The string sections played with a rich tone and articulated the fastest passages with aplomb. The expanded brass section lacked nothing for power played with solid skill. Indeed the only problem occurred during fff loudest passages which covered the violas and cellos who were briefly seen rather than heard.

Next up were Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33a, taken from the opera Peter Grimes, by Benjamin Britten, as they are often played as an orchestral suite. These interludes link scenes in the opera and reflect the scenes’ psychological undercurrents. Britten’s opera is based upon the character of Peter Grimes, a fisherman in George Crabbe’s poem The Borough. The composer said “I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea.” It is an homage to the coastal communities and landscape of Britten’s native Suffolk. According to Andrew Burn’s program note for Virgin Classics (VC 79990834): “Dawn” portrays daybreak on a Suffolk morning while “Sunday Morning” evokes a morning of glittering sunlight with church bells pealing. “Moonlight” evokes the sultry calm of a balmy evening while “Storm” is a snarling portrait of the gale-force wind and waves.”

Kalam led his forces in an evocative and vital performance of this wonderful suite. Violins were superb in their high-lying part in the opening of “Dawn,” beautifully focused with nice trills adding sparkle. Kalam brought out the full range of orchestral color throughout. Percussion added nicely to the evocation of church bells in “Sunday Morning.” The languid serenity of “Moonlight” was nicely recreated. There was plenty of heft in the “Storm,” and its quirky ending came off nicely.

The Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) seems neglected in the concert hall in recent decades. It was composed in the summer of 1868 and first performed in Copenhagen on April 3, 1869. An enthusiastic Franz Liszt suggested some changes which Grieg incorporated before publishing the score in 1872. However, he continued touching up and tinkering with the score until his later years. It is in the standard fast, slow, fast with the shorter middle movement serving as an introduction to the finale which is played without pause. The soloist begins with bravura crashing chords and octaves descending from the piano’s top range to its lowest depths before rushing upward in intoxicating waves of arpeggios. Soft woodwinds begin the main theme while cellos take up a languishing second theme. There is a jaw-dropping virtuoso cadenza for the soloist. The seraphic slow movement seems timeless. The brilliant finale has a theme based upon the rhythm of a popular Norwegian folk-dance, the Halling. A lyric interlude follows after which the duple meter lalling is transformed into a Springdans, a triple meter popular dance leading to a majestic conclusion.

Thomas Otten, Associate Professor and chair of the piano department, gave a magnificent performance. He pulled out all the stops in the hair-raising bravura passages such as the concerto’s opening and the complex cadenzas. Refined care for dynamics and color were evident in the quiet passages, not the least the rhapsodic slow movement. Kalam surrounded Otten with an ideal accompaniment with wonderful contributions from the strings, woodwinds, and brass. The many short instrumental solos were excellent.

Otten’s fine program notes recalled his first complete concerto performance in 1976 was the Grieg. This evening’s performance was dedicated as a gift to his father, who was in attendance, on the eve of his birthday. Otten’s debut CD, Tristan und Isolde: Piano Transcriptions of Franz Liszt (on MSR Classics), is well worth seeking out.