The UNC Symphony Orchestra presented its first concert of the academic year in Memorial Hall on one of those evenings when you creep around Chapel Hill in bumper to bumper traffic for half an hour to find a place to park and then walk half a mile or more to get to the theater. However, it was a pleasant evening and the concert was delayed long enough for most of the late arrivals to find their way to a seat.  

The concert began with Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture, composed in September 1822 for the new Josefstadt Theater in Vienna. Beethoven had been recently engaged in the study of the music of Bach and Handel and the overture bears their unmistakable influence. Being a ceremonial piece he employed the full orchestra throughout much of the overture and the young musicians relished it enthusiastically. Midway through there was a segment reminiscent of Bach-like tranquility that was very nicely played by the awesome array of violins.

Year after year, even with changing classes, this continues to be a very fine orchestra. The constant, of course, is Maestro Tonu Kalam. It must be highly desirable to enroll and be accepted in his orchestra. This year the class includes a total of 40 first and second violins, 13 violists, 16 cellists, 7 bassists and a full complement of woodwinds, brass and percussion. Kalam has a real knack for molding these young musicians, half of them music majors and half of them dedicated and talented instrumentalists majoring in other fields, into a unified and competent symphony orchestra.  

The concert continued with an infrequently heard piece composed by Igor Stravinsky for a film about the Nazi invasion of Norway. He wrote the music, based on Norwegian folk tunes, in 1941 before he ever saw the movie. Alas, the movie producer was not satisfied with the music, and Stravinsky refused any suggested alterations and that was that. It was later published as Four Norwegian Moods.

There could hardly be a more extreme contrast than between the Beethoven and this. Though the size of the orchestra was exactly the same, in the Beethoven most of the playing was tutti (all parts playing at the same time), whereas in the Stravinsky never were the full forces employed at the same time. Rather there were combinations of groups of instruments. The sound was more like chamber music. The first movement “Intrada” included some gentle pastoral sounds along with some typical Stravinsky sass. One part I noticed had the trumpets and trombones playing staccato off-beats, and very nicely done I must say. The melancholy second movement, “Song,” was gorgeously played by the violins and oboe soloist. The third movement, “Wedding Dance,” was typical Stravinsky with crooked rhythms and all could have come out of the cantata ballet Le Noce (The Wedding). “Cortège,” the closing segment, ambles out of sight with a couple of agreeable tunes woven together. It was a joy to hear the fine delicate ensemble playing in all sections of the orchestra.

After intermission the second half of the concert featured Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, subtitled “Romantic” and composed in 1930 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on commission from Serge Koussevitzky. One school of thought holds it to be the great American symphony, reflecting American style freed from European dominance. The other school of thought holds it to be pop music in the same category as Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. It goes without question that this music is closer to the Hollywood sound of the 30s and 40s than to the historical concert sound of America’s great orchestras. Nevertheless, we need not be snobbish about it. Its exuberant and lush melodies are familiar and pleasing to hear. Its structural development is sound. It is accessible to most performance groups, and pleasing even to unsophisticated audiences.

Under the stellar baton of Kalam, the UNC Symphony Orchestra demonstrated the high art of orchestral performance at its best. Phrasing and dynamics were balanced, transitions were handled splendidly, intonation was on the mark and there was always a clear sense of purpose and direction in the playing.

Before the concert began, Kalam shared with the audience news that the UNCSO had been awarded The American Prize in Orchestral Performance — College/University Division for their performance in April 2011 of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. You can hear this superb performance for yourself here.