Once again I was impressed with the performance of the UNC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Tonu Kalam. Their program on Tuesday evening, April 25, focused on familiar and popular romantic favorites and one new piece performed in the beautiful and acoustically sensitive Memorial Hall on the UNC campus.

The opener was Isle of Bliss, a 1995 composition by Finn Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928). In some subtle ways, it was possible to hear that he is the heir of Finland’s celebrated Jean Sibelius. The Isle of Bliss is a mood piece like much of Sibelius’ music, rich in tone color and capturing the feel of a story or poem without telling the story itself. This work was inspired by a poem by Finnish national poet Aleksis Kivi. In Rautavaara’s words, “The poem merely served as a stimulus, a source of inspiration for a piece which falls back not on narrative, but on ‘feel’ or atmosphere.” A striking melody early on gets taken apart and reconstructed through many different techniques. The large orchestra, with two harps and supplemental percussion, performed the piece well, capturing the atmosphere of the “bird heaven” the poet speaks of.

The triumph of the evening was Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with Mayron Tsong giving as physically powerful a reading as this reviewer as ever heard or seen. Currently assistant professor of piano at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tsong was born in Canada, has performed widely, and is a recipient of numerous awards and honors.

After the opening piece, one of the new features of the recently renovated Memorial Hall was called into service. The front portion of the stage was used as an hydraulic elevator to descend, have the grand piano rolled onto it, and ascend back to the concert level again. All of this took hardly more than five minutes. When the piano was in place, from where I was sitting in the middle of the auditorium, it obscured the podium and a large part of the orchestra. From the opening chords tolling like a steeple bell, Tsong’s petite and charming appearance was belied by her powerful performance. In fact, her opening built up to such a stunning sound I had some concerns about how the orchestra would be heard. No reason for concern was warranted. Throughout the performance, the balance between orchestra and soloist was near perfect, whether the piano was accompanying the orchestra’s flowing melody or whether the orchestra was supplementing the piano’s solo work, or whether they were playing as a unit. The ovation that followed the performance was spontaneous and fully deserved.

After intermission, we heard Ottorino Respighi’s The Fountains of Rome, the second of his Roman Trilogy of tone poems composed between 1915 and 1928. (The other two are the more familiar The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals, the last to be composed.) The tone poem, cast as a description of four of Rome’s famous fountains, is lush with Respighi’s masterful orchestral color.

The program ended with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” his most well known work, which even during his lifetime was loved and despised intensely by different crowds, but mostly loved. Rather in self defense, Ravel wrote of Bolero “… what I had written was a piece lasting seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of ‘orchestral tissue without music’ – of one long, very gradual crescendo…. I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for the listeners to take it or leave.” Kalam brought it home in just less than fifteen minutes in a lively performance that carefully accomplished exactly what the composer intended.

The students and friends who comprise the UNC Symphony Orchestra are to be highly commended. To be sure, there were places and elements that lacked the polish of the professional orchestras, but who cares? It was just wonderful to have the opportunity to hear this music played with enthusiasm and gusto and at such an affordable price. How fortunate is the music lover in the Triangle!