UNC’s Symphony Orchestra is far and away the largest such ensemble in the Triangle. Music Director Tonu Kalam has done wonders with the group, whose membership consists of students and adult musicians from Chapel Hill and beyond. It is, in some respects, the classic “town and gown” sort of thing, and one of the benefits of its configuration is that young musicians get to play alongside instrumentalists from all walks of life who continue to find joy in being involved in orchestral work. On December 4, in Hill Hall, the UNCSO packed the stage with 100 players. Sixty-eight of them were strings – and it was breathtaking to see eight doublebasses arrayed and even more breathtaking to experience the aural impact of their presence.

On previous occasions, we’ve mused about the size of this band and observed that at full cry it is far too large for the space. With plans for what is being called the “transformation” of Memorial Hall, one can only hope that the UNCSO will eventually have opportunities to perform in that venerable space, too.

Meanwhile, the fall concert again demonstrated Kalam’s skill as a program builder. The evening began with a Prelude and Fugue by William Walton, based on music written for the 1942 film The First of the Few, the story of the development of the Spitfire fighter plane that starred Leslie Howard and David Niven. The “Spitfire” Prelude is dramatic and atmospheric, and the accompanying fugue, which includes a lovely, tension-breaking trio, demonstrates Walton’s mastery of a time-honored musical form. The work was led by Nathan Hetherington, Assistant Conductor of the UNCSO and one of Kalam’s students. It began with a bit too much brass but when the strings played on their own they sounded rich and radiant. There was a good bit of dynamic contrast although Hill remains a tricky venue and even from the back of the hall this seemed, overall, a mostly loud reading. Hetherington stood exactly like his mentor, directed the piece with comparable precision and skill, and was warmly received for his efforts.

For the evening’s second work, Michael Torke’s Saxophone Concerto, the orchestra shrank to chamber-size, which means that it was about as big as most of our other regional orchestras when the excess players left the stage. The soloist in this 1993 composition was Brian K. Doyle, whose contributions to music in our midst have often been noted in these pages. He’s a wizard with his instrument–a soprano sax, on this occasion–and he played the solo lines brilliantly. Here and there, he seemed almost awash in orchestral sound; perhaps it would have been better if he had been forward of the orchestra, rather than beside the podium. Kalam conducted, eliciting some finely-balanced support for his guest artist. The music has hints of minimalism in its repeated musical figures but is richly orchestrated. The opening and closing movements, which include extensive writing for percussion, resembled some of the best music of Colin McPhee, who was influenced by his years in Indonesia. The work is light and facile, and on first hearing the slow movement didn’t seem to say much, but overall the Concerto created a nice effect and the crowd–Hill was virtually full–seemed to like it.

The grand finale was a glowing, dramatic reading of Brahms’ Second Symphony. Kalam’s pacing was astute, and the richness of his strings was constantly evident. The wind players were uniformly excellent, and the horns made many wonderful contributions. The soft passages were really soft but the players maintained consistent intensity and fervor throughout. The loud passages were hall-filling and then some. There were a few minor ensemble glitches but nothing stopped the show or seriously interfered with one’s enjoyment of the music, which flowed like a great river. The blazing finale created tremendous excitement, and the conductor and his orchestra were at the end enthusiastically applauded. During the ovation, Kalam gave his ensemble two thumbs up – like his audience, he was clearly aware that this had been a very special reading of one of the great works in the literature. We’re keen to hear the UNCSO in the soon-to-be-renovated Memorial Hall!