The balcony of Beasley-Curtis Auditorium of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall was well filled with friends, relatives and other music lovers for the opening concert of the UNC Symphony Orchestra. Music Director Tõnu Kalam had chosen a challenging and enterprising program by sandwiching works by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) around a rarity by William Bolcom (b. 1938). The featured soloist, clarinetist Michael Rowlett, is a UNC alumnus and former concerto winner from 1994.

The Overture to Egmont, Op. 84 made a dramatic and rousing concert opener. Defiance of tyranny was a centerpiece of Beethoven’s philosophy. This overture is the opening to incidental music he composed for Goethe’s 1787 tragedy based on the life of Lamoral, Count of Egmont, a 16th century Dutch nobleman whose beheading sparked the resistance to Spanish domination which led to Netherlands’ independence. The music distills the essence of the drama. The dark, heavy opening chords have the rhythm of a Spanish saraband. Lyric phrases evolve into a rich, sweeping theme in the cellos. The forward drive is halted before a gradual surge builds to a paean to victory.

Kalam led a superbly controlled and phrased interpretation and secured remarkably accomplished playing from his student musicians. The intonation and tone of the string sections were excellent. Woodwinds and brass matched them in their quality.

Many older music lovers may remember local tours by composer Bolcom and his wife, Joan Morris, and their infectious popular songs recitals featuring the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, etc. While he was grounded in Serialism and had composed some Neo-Classical works, he was heavily influenced by the ragtime of Eubie Blake as well as jazz. Much of Bolcom’s eclectic background is reflected in his Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra. It was commissioned for and premiered by Stanley Drucker, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic under conductor Leonard Slatkin on January 3, 1992. The playing style of Benny Goodman influenced Bolcom who mixed “Benny-isms” throughout all three movements. Bolcom wrote “the first movement is roughly Sonata-Allegro form and has a strong Goodman nuance, as does the slow 12-beat-to-the-bar second movement. The last movement alternates a Brazilian chorinho with an ebullient Ravelian waltz.”

Rowlett played the socks off the Bolcom concerto. The clarinet has little rest throughout all three movements. His energy and enthusiasm never flagged, and his breath control and articulation were wonders to see. His tone was, by turns, warm or raspy as needed. It had an extraordinary color palette. Dynamics and rhythms were beautifully judged.

Every section of the orchestra played with skill and style, readily shifting from lyric to dissonant to jazzy. There was a bit of the Big Band era sound in the singing “Cantabile” second movement. It opened with a striking duet between Rowlett’s clarinet and Matthew F. Wolfe’s tuba – a rare exposure for that instrument.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 107, (“Reformation”) was composed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the “Augsburg Confession,” an early document of the Lutheran Reformation in 1830. The event was cancelled, but the work was completed and, after delays, was premiered in Berlin in 1832 under the composer’s baton. Its reception was mixed, and the obsessively critical composer withdrew it. It was only published after his death. In the meantime his Symphony No. 3, “Scottish” and Symphony No. 4, “Italian” had been published. Mendelssohn had had a thorough grounding in Baroque counterpoint from his teacher, Hans Zeller. This led Mendelsohn to produce the revival of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, which initiated the revival of Bach and other older composers which would eventually evolve into today’s early music movement.

Zeller’s Baroque grounding is reflected in Mendelssohn’s skilled use of Renaissance polyphony in the opening movement, which juxtaposes brass and woodwinds with low strings, almost like an organ, in a slow introduction. Near its end, the “Dresden Amen” floats delicately on the violins (reminiscent of Wagner’s use in Parsifal). The lively second movement is folk-like. The third slow movement serves as an introduction to the final, fourth movement, which makes great use of Martin Luther’s chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” Its melody is introduced by solo flute, an instrument played by Luther, before being masterfully taken up by other woodwinds, brass, and strings in turn.

Kalam led his skilled and well-rehearsed musicians in a well-considered and richly satisfying interpretation. What full and rich sounds the cellos, violas, and double basses made. Woodwinds were marvelous, not the least flute soloist Sarah Haines. Brass played with great polish. It was fascinating to see, from the balcony, an ophicleide played by Wolfe, seated by the trombones.