The Beasley-Curtis Auditorium (naming rights aren’t restricted to athletic venues anymore!) in the University of North Carolina‘s Memorial Hall wasn’t as full as it should have been, but nevertheless held a fairly large audience for the school’s large performing ensembles’ spring event.

The program: Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88, and Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, sung by UNC combined choruses and soprano LaToya Lain.

UNC is fortunate to have such a fine student orchestra. If music were treated and valued as highly as sports, this group may well have made deep progress into the orchestral playoffs. The roster numbers 83 players, with its string section larger than the NC Symphony’s. music director and conductor Tonu Kalam has fewer problems with balance between his strings and woodwind/brass sections than are sometimes evident with the state’s professional orchestra.

The Dvořák symphony got off to a wonderful start with its first melodic line played by the cellos, joined by woodwinds and accompanied by the lower strings and winds (no violins yet). The cello section, led by principal Kevin Agner, is particularly fine; their teacher, renowned UNC cellist/gambist Brent Wissick, was there to cheer his students on. While this work is sometimes referred to as the composer’s “English symphony” (it was published in London), it is far more Czech in nature, full of tuneful melodies reminiscent of folk songs. The second movement Adagio revealed some intonation problems in the horn section that reappeared in the Poulenc work, but this did not detract from the overall effect. Solos by concertmaster Ayman Bejjani and oboe principal Emily Harmon were beautifully played as this movement’s Wagnerian-like harmonies decorated the soulfulness of Dvořák’s rich symphonic texture.

The waltz character of the third-movement Allegretto grazioso danced appropriately, with the 16 first violinists leading the way. The woodwinds had their moment to shine in the festive coda. The trumpet and horn accompaniment interjections were a bit too loud for good balance because it can be difficult to play short notes quietly on these instruments.

Throughout the four movements, Kalam’s attention to the score’s frequent dynamic changes were exemplary. He is teaching his young musicians well, and they are responding with excellent performances. The closing Allegro ma non troppo was a fine frolic for all, bringing the symphony to a brilliant conclusion, warmly received by the audience.

With the singers taking the stage on risers behind the orchestra and soprano Lain in front of the orchestra on the conductor’s left, we were ready for Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. Composed in 1959 under commission by the Koussevitzky music foundation in the Library of Congress, this work is quintessential Poulenc, full of his playful accents on the wrong syllables of text, his martial elements contrasting with his gentle and quiet passages, even in the same movement.

Poulenc makes monumental demands on the soprano soloist in this work: she must sing pianissimo above-the-staff notes, including phrases which end in pp high-A eighth-notes. UNC faculty member Lain’s magisterial delivery was a highlight of the evening. Her commanding stage presence, as she underscored her vocal art with expressive hands, was a superb complement to the performance. It is interesting to note that she follows in the tradition of this work’s premiere performance in January of 1961 by the Boston Symphony and the Pro Musica Chorus under Charles Munch, when the soprano soloist was the acclaimed African-American soprano Adele Addison.

The chorus acquitted itself well, particularly in the many quiet moments. (In one place, Poulenc even requires that a semi-chorus of singers must be “an almost imperceptible murmur.”) The singers would benefit from adding a deeper and darker resonance to their sound when singing with an orchestra.

When an orchestra outnumbers a chorus, there are bound to be balance problems. I was prepared to complain about this until I learned from a singer, post-concert, that the performers were not able to have even a single rehearsal in the auditorium. The only time the performers and their conductors heard themselves in the hall was during the concert. While I obviously don’t know why other demands on the space took precedence, this is no way for an institution to treat a hard-working group of students. Returning to the sports analogy, would the Tar Heel football or basketball team be refused practice time on their playing fields? Not likely. These musical groups are part of the fabric of the university, and should be honored for their contributions to their school and to its wider community. (The hours of individual practice time and rehearsal time are easily in the thousands: the program for this concert named 143 players/singers.)

A longtime attendee and supporter of the UNC Symphony said, “This is the best $10.00 concert opportunity in all of North Carolina!” Even as a Duke grad, I must agree.

Congratulations to conductor Tonu Kalam, choral director Susan Klebanow, soloist Dr. LaToya Lain, and to every member of the orchestra and chorus for making this event one of which you should be proud.