Conductor Tonu Kalam led the University of North Carolina’s Symphony Orchestra through a concert of incidental music in Memorial Hall. The pieces were composed to accompany dramatic and cinematic stories of political upheaval, tragic sibling rivalry, and class struggle. The resulting performance brought out the best in this music with a combination of succinct programming and exuberant execution.

The issue of programming has been raised in the debate over how major US orchestras can boost ticket sales and public support in the face of dwindling audiences. Should orchestras stick to canonized pieces or rely on pops performances in hopes of attracting listeners? In comparison, university orchestras by nature have more freedom to program new works while emphasizing fundamental pieces and introducing students to a wide variety of styles. While undoubtedly educational and valuable, this freedom can lead to marathon concerts whose cumbersome length can mar quality performances. An overstuffed program can leave an audience listless and reeling from an influx of aural information.

The UNC Symphony’s recent program presented an elegant, carefully considered trio of works originally composed to accompany theater and cinema. Aside from this overarching formal similarity, the three pieces differ in time period, style, mood, and instrumentation — but they compliment each other well. Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont shifts between robust, hopeful peaks and evocative passages meant to illustrate the title character’s political struggles and tragic demise. Gabriel Fauré’s suite accompanying Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande is comprised of four dreamy, tender movements meant to express the emotional turmoil of the symbolist play’s doomed heroine. Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront vividly depicts the film’s gritty imagery and its main character’s struggle for dignity with bombastic, kinetic figures.

The UNC Music Department’s only orchestra includes not only music majors, but also students from other fields and community members (all by audition). With this combination, Kalam has maintained an exceptional musical standard for the ensemble; in particular, the ensemble’s phalanxes of string players produce an impressive full, cohesive group tone and perform with excellent intonation. Soloists on harp, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and oboe shone during delicate passages in Beethoven and Fauré, while percussion (performing with gusto on two sets of timpani) and the low brass carried the Bernstein piece through sections of syncopated ocean-esque figures with considerable bombast. The high brass maintained just the right amount of edge to their sound in the tense, angular jabs in Waterfront’s fast-paced theme.

The UNC Symphony’s top-notch performance and thoughtful presentation made clear the evocative power of incidental music with this concert. The Egmont Overture functioned as a bright, invigorating starter; the Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande brought on a contemplative atmosphere with its gauzy textures, lamentative mood and solo sections; On the Waterfront was a post-intermission payoff whose stylistic details and arresting emotional impact were vitalized by an excellent group of musicians and sharpened by the very different but complimentary pieces that came before.