Pssst! Wanna hear a full-sized orchestra, with a big complement of strings? Head to Chapel Hill…. The UNC Symphony Orchestra, a venerable and fine town and gown orchestra consisting of students, mostly, augmented by some outstanding artists from the community, and led by Music Director Tonu Kalam, fielded 66 strings, according to the roster in the program, at its annual concerto competition concert on March 2. As we’ve noted on previous occasions, the string section of this orchestra is as large as most of the whole bands elsewhere in the region, including the NC Symphony. UNC’s a mite short in the doublebass department – there were only five onstage for this performance. But the 17 cellos, ten violas, and 35 violins provided lush, rich, rock-solid sound in Hill Hall, sound that was, for the most part, more than sufficient to offset the group’s triple winds and brass and percussion. Packed like sardines on the small stage, on which a piano took up still more room, the players had little elbowroom, but the sound – ah! the sound! – was consistently impressive.

The concert began with Elgar’s dark and often troubling “Coronation” March (1911), written for George V. Like the “Enigma” Variations, recently given in the same venue by the Chapel Hill Philharmonia (the town’s community orchestra), and like the “Cockaigne” Overture, this March has an organ part, played by W. Sands Hobgood, who shook the hall with the pedal notes. (We glanced up at the ceiling, expecting the plaster to begin dusting down on our heads, but it held….) The March is not often played, and one of the reasons – aside from that organ part – is its overall character. It would appear that Elgar knew what was coming for the British Empire, in the terrible years to follow. Some view the piece as a funeral march for what had been but was never to be again….

The concert ended with three “Dance Episodes” from On the Town, by Bernstein, and there are wartime overtones here, too. The show opened on December 28, 1944, with John Battles, Cris Alexander, and Adolph Green himself as the on-liberty sailors who would be immortalized, in the 1949 film, by Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin. This is the show with the celebrated “New York, New York” song, with lyrics by Comden and Green. It was timely in the waning days of WWII and in the post-war years, and it’s timely now, and the playing of these short numbers provided an exhilarating cap to a splendid evening.

In between came six offerings by four undergrad musicians. Pianist Meredith C. Kincaid played the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto No. 19, in F, K.459, using Mozart’s cadenza. She undulates, but the performance itself, accompanied by a slimmed-down ensemble, was satisfactory. More than that this critic dares not say, since the artist holds advanced degrees in Songahm Taekwondo. Jeremy Peterman’s rendition of the opening movement of Ravel’s Concerto in G was splendid in every respect, and the composer’s “special” instruments – harp (Emily Laurance), unusual percussion, etc. – came through the sometimes thick orchestral texture admirably. There was some uncertainty in the woodwinds (and some ensemble problems, here and elsewhere, too), but the sweep of the music carried the day. Both pianists are currently students of Thomas Otten.

After the intermission there were four selections – two each – by two singers. Countertenor Jonas Laughlin’s reputation was big enough even last fall to attract the attention of one of our leading opera companies here, and he was a standout in last December’s Céphale et Procis, by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. With the UNCSO, he sang Oberon’s “Welcome, wanderer,” from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream , with wondrous artistry and skill and then astounded the crowd with Sesto’s “Vani sono lamenti…Svegliatevi nel core,” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, embellishing the repeated “A” section grandly. People are saying of the NCS’ new stick-waver, Grant Llewellyn, “He’s the real thing”; if Laughlin continues to develop well, he’s destined to be the “real thing,” too, and may stand to be a viable replacement for the great René Jacobs.

Baritone Harris Ipock also figured in the December performances of that aforementioned tragédie lyrique, in which he essayed one of the title roles. He sang Mozart this time – “Donne mie,” from Così fan tutte, and the Count’s “Hai già vinta…Vedrò mentr’io sospiro” from Le Nozze di Figaro, assisted by harpsichordist Sam Gingher. Ipock is young; greater richness will come in due course. Meanwhile, he projected well and had good command of the requisite style.

Laughlin studies with Barbara Ann Peters, and Ipock, with Stafford Wing.

Readers may hear the UNCSO again on April 16 and 20.