A large turnout of music lovers and friends of players in the Beasley-Curtis Auditorium in Memorial Hall heard a strongly contrasted program that revealed the full range of the skills of the University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. Music director and conductor Tonu Kalam led his charges through two challenging twentieth century works that gave principal players plenty of scope to shine while giving orchestra sections ample opportunity to flaunt precise ensemble and subtle dynamics. Kalam fields probably the largest orchestra likely to be seen and heard in the state, and this concert was no exception. The huge string section was made up of nearly 40 violins, 16 violas, 18 cellos, and 7 double basses. These were expertly balanced against fine woodwind, brass, and percussion sections.

The Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) began in 1910 as a piano duet for children and was turned into an enlarged ballet in 1911, from which the five movement orchestra suite was extracted in 1912. “Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty” features delicate, refined playing with a gentle melody above a walking bass with string pizzicatos.
One of the highlights of “Tom Thumb” is the bird calls in its second section made by the concertmaster playing glissandos in harmonics accompanied by the chirping of the piccolo and flute. The five-pitch or pentatonic melody of “Laideronnette” (Little ugly girl, Empress of the Pagodas) gives it an oriental flavor enhanced by the xylophone, percussion, and harp. The pungent impersonation of the Beast by the contrabassoon is a feature of “Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête” (The Conversations of Beauty and the Beast). His transformation takes place with a long harp glissando, triangle stroke, followed by the Beast theme transformed into harmonics for the solo violin. The full orchestra swells in dynamics in the final apotheosis “happy ending” of the final movement, “Le Jardin Féerique” (The fairy garden).

The high quality of the current UNC Symphony players was immediately evident in the delicate and unified sheen of the strings playing ppp during the hushed opening. The skill of the strong woodwind section was obvious throughout all five movements. The deep rasping of the contrabassoon was played by Jessica Kunttu. The brass played with great restraint. The prominent solos of concertmistress Cynthia Burton were excellent.

During the 1930s, Soviet composers were supposed to follow the principles of “Socialist Realism,” in order to serve the propaganda goals of the state by using simple, easily understood tonal music to portray heroic and victorious progressive goals. Contemporary “bourgeois” or “formalist” devices, such as extensive use of dissonance, twelve-tone technique, etc. were to be abandoned in favor of strictly tonal harmonies and folk tunes from the many national minorities. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) had constantly skirted the tolerance of established authorities but the success of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934) proved to be his undoing when Joseph Stalin caught a performance of the hit work and he was not at all amused. Within days, an editorial appeared in Pravda denouncing “intentionally dissonant, muddled flow of sounds.” Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 was withdrawn and, along with much of his chamber music, committed to the desk drawer until after Stalin’s death in 1953.  The composer’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (1937) was supposed to be his meek acceptance of “just criticism” but it can be heard on two levels. As in many of his public works during the Stalin era, the bureaucrats could see the work as victorious socialist realism while sensitive listeners could hear a musical representation of brutal oppression of the Communist tyranny.

Kalam led a masterful interpretation, balancing and subordinating details within the four movements to an over-arching conception of the whole work building to a devastating finale.
The huge cello section, reinforced by seven double basses, was breath-taking as they dug into the jagged opening theme of the First movement. The ostinato rhythm of the movement’s central development came off magnificently. Just the right sass was brought to the ironic, neoclassical second movement. In later movements, concertmistress Cynthia Burton contributed sophisticated and stylish solos. The discipline of the string sections was outstanding in the emotionally devastating Largo. Shostakovich divides the violins into three sections while the violas and cellos are divided into two sections each. Coupled only with the equally adept woodwinds and harps, the interweaving of the complex counterpoint was awesome. The thunderous buildup of the bombastic Finale blew the audience away. The performance of principal timpanist Kuntal Shah rivaled any by professional players I have heard in this wonderful symphony. The difficult E-flat clarinet solo was played by Andy Warwick. Bravo!