My first thoughts after the blazing finale of the University of North Carolina Symphony‘s last concert of the season were, “Wow, Terrific!” However, I am sure my editor would have wanted expanded comments on Music Director Tonu Kalam’s imaginative, winning program with two outstanding soloists who helped set Memorial Hall’s Beasley-Curtis Auditorium  vibrating sympathetically. High Point, NC, native Anthony Dean Griffey is the four-time Grammy Award-winning tenor who has performed in the greatest opera houses of the world. He is also Professor of the Practice in the Music Department at UNC Chapel Hill. Andrew McAfee was principal horn of the North Carolina Symphony for 15 years before giving in to the temptations of the conductor’s baton. He currently teaches the horn in the UNC Music Department among his many other activities.

Benjamin Britten (1913-76) is considered one of the most accomplished composers for setting the English language to music since Henry Purcell (1659?-95). Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31 (1943), was composed in 1942 while he was waiting for the libretto for his first large scale opera, Peter Grimes, to be completed. Like the title role of the opera, the tenor part of the Serenade was intended for Britten’s life-long companion, Peter Pears. The horn part was composed for the brilliant player Dennis Brain who was to die, still tragically young, in an auto accident.

Lewis M. Smoley’s program notes for Vox Unique CD A Serenade to Music describes Britten’s work succinctly. “A Prologue and Epilogue for solo horn to be played in natural harmonic (i.e. without values) provides the framework within which the six poems are presented…. The first poem, Charles Cotton’s ‘Pastoral,’ is set to a simple broken-chord figure in the voice part, echoed by the horn. The ‘Nocturne’ that follows catches all the romantic temperament of Tennyson’s poems, particularly in the imitative ‘bugle’ cadenzas for singer and horn. The setting of Blake’s ‘Elegy’ is no less appropriate. Its two short verses are framed by an orchestral soliloquy in which enormous tension is achieved by a sustained accompaniment in the inner parts.” A grotesque funeral march helps conjure an eerie quality to the setting of the 15th-century anonymous poem entitled “Dirge.” Ben Jonson’s “Hymn (To Diana)” is given as fleet a treatment as Mendelssohn might have provided. Keat’s “Sonnet” (“To Sleep”) is languid and rich in coloristic chords. The Epilogue repeats the music of the opening from off stage.

McAfee’s playing of the natural horn in the prologue and epilogue was simply breath-taking, and his mastery of the valved horn during the poetic settings was no less spectacular. His palette of tonal color for both instruments and his refined control of dynamics were superb. Britten intended the natural “out-of-focus” quality of the high notes played on the valveless horn. McAfee’s intonation on the modern horn was spot on. Griffey’s tenor voice has an extraordinary dynamic range with a wonderful ring and perfect focus at full power. His diction was marvelously clear no matter how fast paced or slowly spun out. He gave great care for the words as he colored them as needed. His interpretation of Britten’s Serenade ought to join his embodiment of Peter Grimes on recorded media! Tonu Kalam’s string orchestral accompaniment of the Britten fit like a glove. Each string section played as one with razor sharp attacks and releases and refined dynamic and tonal shadings.

The Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940), was the last composition of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). Composed for and premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the work contains many references to and quotes from the composer’s earlier works. The outer two movements, “Non allegro” and “Lento assai-Allegro vivace,” are dominated by infectious, rhythmic vitality while the middle “Andante con moto (Tempo di valse)” has unique, shifting harmonies. The first movement quotes the first theme of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 which was derived from motifs of Russian church music. The composer’s characteristic statement of the “Dies Irae” from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead as well as the quotation of  “Blagosloven esi, Gospodi” (“Blessed be the Lord”) from Russian Orthodox chant dominate the inexorable finale.

Kalam’s musicians played as if possessed, each section following as one every twist and turn of color and dynamics. The stage was packed with over 100 players. What a pleasure it was to hear 16 cellos, 14 violas, and 7 basses dig into Rachmaninoff’s driving rhythms! It’s unlikely our fine N.C. Symphony or our major cities’ orchestras will be able to field such numbers in the current or foreseeable economy. Many players rose to the challenge of Rachmaninoff’s focus on solo instrumental color, especially in the chamber music-like interlude in the first movement. Kiran Bhardwaj’s fine oboe solo was soon paired with the clarinet of Andrew Warwick. This was joined by the fruity alto saxophone of Alex Poetzsche, who basked in this rare, extended chance to shine in a classical orchestra. Further fine contributions were made by bassoonist Jessica Kunthu, bass clarinetist Margaret Unger, flutist Ellye Walsh, and English horn player Lauren Sinkez. The pairing of Unger’s bass clarinet and Amy DiDomentico’s contrabassoon was particularly pungent. Concertmaster Cynthia Burton’s extended solos were strongly characterized. Kalam had many individual players stand in acknowledgement of their many fine solos, and he honored each section of the orchestra during the second curtain call. Bravo to all!