The Wilmington Symphony Orchestra, one of the Cape Fear region’s esteemed musical institutions, celebrated its 50th anniversary with a concert held on the same date, and nearly at the same hour, as their very first performance in 1972.

It was a festive occasion, with strong attendance by an obviously devoted community audience. It took place in Wilmington’s superb Wilson Center, a new performance space opened just six years ago, which has been the WSO’s main performance home for most of the time since then. Several people who played in the first WSO concert were in the audience for this one. Previous members of the orchestra’s youth program are now among the regular members of the orchestra, which also includes multiple family members playing together.

The Wilmington Symphony started life as the UNC-W (University of North Carolina Wilmington) Community Orchestra, thanks in no small part to two violinists, a music librarian, and a cherry pie. It has since expanded to become a regional artistic enterprise. The regular subscription series includes five concerts a season spanning a wide range of repertoire. Twenty years ago, the Wilmington Symphony Youth Orchestra gave its first concert and since then has included hundreds of young people, some of whom, as mentioned above, “graduate” to become part of the regular orchestra. Several other newer ensembles cater to growing numbers of young students, and the orchestra now performs monthly at the Cameron Art Museum, one of Wilmington’s more important cultural presenters.

The performance was preceded by a soirée, at which music lovers could gather over hors d’oeuvres and champagne and savor the anticipation of the upcoming musical celebration. After the concert, the soirée resumed, with some of the orchestra members in attendance. This added luster and sparkling conversation to the gala occasion, and people enjoyed interacting with the performers.

The concert was conducted by the orchestra’s long-time music director Dr. Stephen Errante, who joined the faculty at UNCW in 1986 and is just the third regular conductor. He has led the ensemble for all of the past 35 years. The program was a combination of classical, light classics, and popular pieces. It was clearly enjoyed by the audience; the word “fun” kept coming up in conversations heard after the performance. Some of the program also had to be built quickly, due to the withdrawal of vocalist Linda Lavin from the event due to Covid. The concert was dedicated to the memory of Barry Burkholder, a lover and supporter of music who died, 80 years young, in 2020. Janet, his wife of 58 years, was among the audience for the performance.

The short opening number of the concert was an excerpt of the famous “Danse Bacchanale” from the opera Samson et Delilah by Saint-Saëns. The lively music began the performance with crisp rhythm, full string sound, and an excellent shapely oboe solo at the beginning. After this introduction, an area county commissioner gave a peppy talk with a bit of orchestra history and some photo projections, adding festive uplift.

The orchestra’s February concert is the occasion each year for special appearances by the winners of the annual concerto competition. Held since 1976, the competition has been a marker point for budding young performers. The first on this concert was violinist Aria DiLoreto, who is already (as a high school junior) an active area musician – she is the assistant concertmaster of the WSO’s youth orchestra. She played the first movement of Édouard Lalo’s well-loved Symphonie Espagnole. Her expressive playing stood out, and she received good support rhythmically from the orchestra. Already a developing artist headed for a professional career, her achievement is also an obvious example of the success of the WSO’s investment in young musicians. Her gifted teacher, whose own daughter has won the competition as well, was among the violinists in the orchestra.

The winner in the college division of the competition, Luís Barragán-Higuera, played the large-scale first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It was a strong performance, with sensitive phrasing and dramatic scope, played by a pianist who clearly loves performing. Some phrases, despite the sensitivity, failed to fully carry through, while the cadenza brought energy and excitement, notably in the glittering trills. The orchestra mainly supported well, but sometimes didn’t fully carry the rhythmic precision and momentum required in Beethoven’s strongly motivic writing. Orchestra and soloist came together successfully in the atmospheric coda and gave the movement an evocative and dramatic conclusion.

Sending the audience off to intermission in a bright mood, Sousa’s evergreen “Stars and Stripes Forever” was conducted by Lorraine Gilmore, who had won the opportunity to lead the piece. Following intermission, the overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein, another piece well-loved by orchestras and audiences, was carried off with verve. The tone was bright, the sometimes-challenging rhythms were strong, and there were good changes of color. The winds earned special praise.

The second movement of Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in C minor featured Benny Hill on saxophone. Hill is an active and visible musician around the Wilmington area, where his jazz performances are known to many. He was also the winner of the WSO concerto competition 30 years ago, when he was a UNCW college student. This performance had lovely tone and long phrases which carried very well.

Hill’s performance formed a fine meditation between the preceding overture and lush excerpts from Les Misérables. The orchestra seemed at home in this music, with full massed sound and long-phrase string lines soaring overhead; the ending march was stirring. Two songs performed by soprano Marva Robinson followed Claude Michel-Schönberg’s music. Robinson’s powerful gospel-style performances need no introduction to Wilmington audiences – she has appeared with the WSO a number of times over the years to great success. With “O Glory!,” the delicacy of the orchestral accompaniment seemed somewhat at odds with the more energetic vocal part, though the writing was lovely. In “Hold On,” Robinson created a powerful, rousing dramatic character. She is in her element with this kind of forceful singing. It was a great gospel number and the orchestral arrangement caught the tone perfectly. Robinson received a well-earned ovation from the audience.

The ending piece was the coda from Rossini’s famous William Tell Overture. I would have liked to hear the whole piece, but the “Lone Ranger” ending is the part most people know, and it brought the concert to a rousing, kinetic ending. There were cheers from the audience once again, and I felt that the orchestra had celebrated its first fifty years with excitement, fine music making, and a varied program which brought pleasure to the large audience. One could hardly ask for more.