CHAPEL HILL, NC – UNC Symphony Orchestra Music Director and Conductor Tonu Kalam may not be quite as longstanding an institution as the first university in the state, but has been conducting this ensemble beautifully for the last 36 years. This week he led his final concert before retirement – he says: “my 160th, as I calculated it” – featuring “two sharply contrasting masterpieces.” I’d argue that the works performed were not so much in contrast as they were variations on a theme – metaphorically speaking. Johannes Brahms’ Schicksalslied, Op. 54 (1871) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888) both present meditations on the human condition – how we are beautiful, unique creatures in an amazing world, destined to face both immeasurable suffering and immeasurable splendor during our limited existences.

Brahms’ work, which translates to “Song of Fate,” is based on German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperions Schicksalslied. Both the Carolina Choir and UNC Chamber Singers, directed by Susan Klebanow, joined the orchestra for this tour-de-force. After a brief, understated orchestral introduction, the first stanza acted as an invocation to a divine spirit world, with lush harmonies beginning in the strings and moving to the choir that remained soft and light. A tinge of dissonance and some more complicated harmonies color the second stanza, still lyrically describing “the heavenly ones,” yet beginning to separate their timelessness from “suffering humanity.” The orchestra portrayed downright turmoil in the third stanza, as the vocalists depicted the programmatic crashing of water “hurled from crag to crag” in highly articulated, staccato syllables. Fragmented motives passed more sparingly from low to high strings as the tone of the piece moved from anguished to conflicted to uncertain.

Brahms masterfully repeats the third stanza to underscore the feeling of humanity’s “rest at no abode…year after year downward,” yet chooses not to end the work in a place of despair. He reorchestrates the original invocation into a new key while leaving the chorus silent, all culminating to create a contemplative finale. “Thus,” Kalam muses in his program notes, “the listener is left to question whether the darkness…is resolved by the ethereal orchestral coda – and whether the Divine of the Human aspect of the poem prevails.” Whatever the outcome, the performance was incredibly effective, with great balance throughout, save for a few moments when the choir’s incredible diction was (understandably) lost behind a wall of huge, orchestral sound. A few minor intonation inconsistencies between the winds and brass towards the end of the piece tended to undercut the power of some of the final chords, but the overall performance was highly effective.

An orchestra on a lit stage

The UNC Symphony Orchestra takes the stage – photo credit Andrea Luke

After a short intermission, the orchestra reconvened for Tchaikovsky’s no less monumental Symphony No. 5. Similarly to the lyrics of the Brahms work, Tchaikovsky’s own notes on this piece reference it as an exploration of “complete submission to fate, or…the unfathomable predetermination of providence.” The simple, unison clarinet line at the beginning of the first movement – what Kalam names “the Fate motive” – was plaintive, yet carries huge, complex emotional implications that continue to return and transform throughout the work. From there, the orchestra gradually picks up speed with an expertly understated undercurrent of wind flourishes as the strings and then brasses build intensity – then later this is reversed with the undercurrent coming from string pizzicatos. It wasn’t long before the orchestra reached a tremendous wall of sound, ultimately joyful but always ebbing and flowing with new developments.

The sheer amount of sound produced by this orchestra was incredible, and almost always contained itself into a clear, polished sound. Honestly, the occasional unintended break or split of a note by one or two players only served to illustrate how emotionally invested the players were. I got the impression that this group was going to pour every ounce of energy they had into this music, and that they had complete faith in their director. Kalam, in turn, seemed to implicitly trust the players, as his conducting remained clear and unhurried, encouraging rubatos, crescendos, and relishing the occasional contemplative silence.

The horn solo in the second movement was so tender, serving as a gorgeous support for the soft and soaring melody to seamlessly pass between sections as the melodic themes continued to explore and develop. Moving into the third and fourth movements, the orchestra’s running passages added lacy flourishes and motion to waves of intense emotions, sometimes conflicting with each other but always pursuing the goal of reaching a triumphant, glorious coda. I was so pleased to note that the players generally all managed to sound fresh and energetic, continuously able to pull back and show restraint and contrast between huge outpourings of sound.

The compositions themselves leave many open-ended questions about fate and whether humanity will ever reach a satisfying resolution; do either of these pieces truly resolve? Does humanity’s experience transform into something divine by its very nature? However, the concert itself was suffused in such joy and gratitude that resulted in a wonderful feeling of completion and accomplishment. I feel so lucky to have been a part of this incredible evening, and wish both the students and Mr. Kalam so much good fortune as they wrap up this school year and this chapter!