A large and enthusiastic audience of families and friends filled the balcony of the beautifully restored Aycock Auditorium on the campus of the University of North Carolina Greensboro for an unusually attractive program that featured two orchestras. In addition to the UNCG Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kevin M. Geraldi, the first half of the concert featured the Watauga High School Honors Orchestra, from Boone, NC, directed by William Selle. During his introductory comments, Geraldi explained it has become a tradition to invite outstanding youth orchestras to perform on campus and to attend master classes.

Selle led the all-string Watauga High School Honors Orchestra in the challenging five-movement Concerto Grosso in G, Op. 6, No. 1, by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). The slow, majestic opening came off well. The ensemble was good, and some edgy tone smoothed out as the players warmed up over the remaining movements. Handel’s concerto grosso, like the baroque Corelli/Vivaldi models, sets a small concertino of soloists against the ripieno or full ensemble. This orchestra’s soloists, concertmistress Alina Kosmala, often paired with her stand mate Jesse Wangler, and cellist Belle Lehmann, were excellent. They were ably supported by the harpsichord continuo played by Laurie Nicholson.

Morten Lauridsen‘s (b.1943) setting of O Magum Mysterium (1994), a responsorial chant from the Matins of Christmas, has become one of the world’s most performed and recorded choral scores since its 1994 premiere. Selle led his string players in an all-string arrangement by Sandra Dackow  that takes about four minutes. Her publisher lists it as “Medium/Easy.” Seller and the young musicians made the most of the long, soaring melodic lines of the piece which juxtaposes them with an idiosyncratic but clearly tonal harmony. It is now considered an alternative choice to Barber’s Adagio.

It was appropriate that a fine student piano soloist was given his chance to strut his stuff in Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16, by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). The original score was penned while Prokofiev was still a conservatory student. The composer’s style of playing was said to have been overpoweringly brilliant, and this concerto was perceived as “wild and chaotic.” Prokofiev “reconstructed” the score in 1924; toned down or not, it still juxtaposes lovely, languishing melodies against savage fff poundings and twists. The orchestral score combines long rests, featuring the piano, with wide dynamics and vigorous rhythms.

The soloist was William Hueholt, a junior at UNCG double majoring in piano performance and German. He is currently a student with Joseph Di Piazza. Hueholt played the concerto without reference to a score and without any lapse of confidence or technique. The poetic sections were spun out beautifully while his fingers seemed to be made of steel in the thundering passages. Geraldi led the well-prepared University Symphony Orchestra in a stylish and well-balanced performance.

It was a real treat to hear The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-16), by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) as the composer would have wanted it, with an off-stage wordless women’s chorus and no interplanetary NASA film to boost “new” audiences. Holst claimed that the individual titles of his Planets “were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets”; they are not at all connected with the gods of classical mythology. The seven movements are: “Mars, the Bringer of War,” “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” “Mercury, the Winged Messenger,” “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” “Uranus, the Magician,” and “Neptune, the Mystic.”

Geraldi led a very stylish performance with a wide palette of color and dynamics and vigorous rhythms. Every section of the orchestra played at a professional level; there was fine cohesion of string tone with precise attacks from every section. The huge brass section, with seven horns, four trumpets, and three trombones blazing away while double timpani pounded, made for an aptly overpowering “Mars.” Concertmaster Brandon Ironside and cellist Ryan Grabert had numerous, beautifully-played solos in the quieter, more introspective sections from “Venus” onward. The woodwinds were strong throughout. The final planet, “Neptune,” was given masterful treatment. It is nearly tuneless and played ppp throughout, fading to silence. Through the gaps in the wooden shell, the door to a space holding the off-stage women’s chorus was visible. Their pitches were so extraordinarily precise, I assumed it was a small, highly trained chamber choir. During the curtain calls, there entire backstage was packed three or more deep across with the UNCG Women’s Glee Club. Kudos to their conductor Carole Ott and their stellar finish to the wonderful Holst score.