From the raw jungle sounds of Silvestre Revueltas‘ primitive Sensemayá to the sensuous silkiness of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, culminating in the unabashed and frank Romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Maestro Robert Franz led his skilled young musicians through a program filled with challenges, not only technical, but foremost, of a musical nature. A large audience filled the Stevens Center for this last concert before the magnificent hall closes for major renovation, expected to take two years before completion. Last night over a hundred students and a few alumni of the UNC School of the Arts graced the stage, although rotation accounted for about a quarter of the performers. The largest string section played the Tchaikovsky, and the largest wind, brass and percussion sections played the Revueltas.

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) was a Mexican composer who made great use of native percussion instruments as well as themes and scenarios from indigenous American and African sources. Along with compatriot Carlos Chavez, he led Mexican composers’ quest to draw inspiration from folklore and folk music. Maestro Franz chose a most “reasonable” tempo for this performance, which allowed the complex percussion parts to reinforce the dizzying repeated measures of 7/8 to drag us into the intoxication of the relatively short work (11 minutes). There were several outstanding tuba solos, played with power and passion by Avery Green. Maestro Franz swayed and “slithered” his way through the piece while maintaining control over its rhythmic foundations.

Unfortunately, the 12-page playbill did not give us any information about the composers and the works in the concert - wouldn’t it be a feather in the cap of the graduating student whose program notes had been published for all to read! Fortunately, the conductor let us know after the first work had been played, that it was about a Cuban legend involving the killing of a snake as written into the short poem by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén.

Happily, Franz did present us with a helpful introduction to the Wagnerian world of Leitmotif (loosely translated as “theme-song”) which identifies a character (King Mark’s theme), an emotion (love-theme), or a situation (Death-theme) which Wagner employed (and modern composers like John Williams employ to great success).

The execution of this very profound work had moments of nervousness. The opening was somewhat marred by an errant bass, a wayward wind and the insistent tympani. The result was a yearning for more depth and breadth in a work which is “the depth and breadth and height [the] soul can reach, when feeling out of sight; For the ends of being and ideal grace.” (Sonnet 43; Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

Perhaps more to the liking and temperament of the youthful musicians, the Symphony No. 5, Opus 64, in E minor by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky seemed to be a better fit. Indeed, the strings were lyrical and sometimes downright passionate. However, some of the loud passages seemed to be contests between brass groups as to which could play loudest - and the trumpets seemed most often to be eclipsed by trombones and horns as well as the timpani from its perch, dead center on the highest platform. One wanted more balance and finesse in some loud passages which are important to the music of Tchaikovsky. Notably, Amanda Friedman played the famous second movement horn solo with tenderness and expression to bring a tear to the eye! Brava! In addition, the clarinet section played the recurring signatory theme of the symphony with depth of feeling and expression.