The UNC Symphony Orchestra opened its 2009-10 season with another outstanding performance under the skilled leadership of Tonu Kalam. I am astonished each year at the number of string players (36 violins, 12 violas, 15 cellos and 7 double basses this year) along with a healthy band of skilled woodwind, brass and percussionists giving this orchestra a truly symphonic sound.

The program opened with a rousing performance of the Hungarian (or Rákóczy) March that Berlioz, having written earlier, used to conclude Part I of La Damnation de Faust. It is Berlioz at his brassy and bold best, infectious in its rhythmic and melodic treatment and imaginative orchestration. One notation I scribbled on my program notes refers to the entrance of the violas as a very loud brass passage was fading away. The clarity of the string entrance even as the brass were still quite loud is a consistent trademark of the skill of these young musicians and the masterfulness of the preparatory and podium skills of Maestro Kalam.

You may have heard programmatic music that sought to describe the sea or a landscape or tell a story or reflect a mood or a thought, but with reasonable confidence, it can be said you have never heard anything quite like the next piece on the program. Michael Gandolfi’s Of Angels and Neurones is programmatic music of a different sort all together. It is one of UNC’s 10×10 Project – ten commissions for different ensembles over ten years; this one for the UNCSO and Maestro Kalam. It came into existence as a result of Gandolfi’s previous exploration of scientific themes in musical terminology and a suggestion from Dr. Burt Lesnick, a scientist with a leaning toward musical expression. The piece was further informed from the book From Angels to Neurones: Art and the New Science of Dreaming by J. Allan Hobson and Hellmut Wohl. This work suggested the title of the piece and the final concept that incorporates a landscape, so to speak, of the activity of brainwaves during the phenomenon of sleeping. Also important to the work is the unpredictability of the firing of neurons and uptake of receptors. Dr. Lesnick, who was in the audience, told me during a brief conversation at intermission that the brain is far more active during periods of sleep than during waking hours and task focusing.

So to the music, this is how I experienced it: The piece began with a busy pattern in the strings that was interrupted occasionally by a soloist or a section, sometimes responded to, sometimes not. The full orchestra with all those strings, woodwinds, brass and a large percussion section including five timpani became involved. Four or five minutes into the piece (that’s a guess – I wasn’t timing it) a deliciously lyrical French horn solo emerged and seemed to want to go on, but was passed to the flute and faded away as another boisterous episode arose in full orchestral color. There was a passage where different soloists and sections took up snatches of melody or tonality or rhythm and passed it on to other soloists or sections. The strings took up an orderly theme over which the clarinet and the horn responded to each other. A harmonically rich and ethereal passage in full strings was left to the cello section. Another busy segment with horn, trumpet, flute and strings competing built to full orchestra with brass and tympani. This was followed by another quiet section which was interrupted by piccolo, then flute and other woodwinds, and eventually settled down to a regular pattern, somewhat like a sinister Mahlerian march: a quiet base drum beat coupled with double bases and cellos in tremolo became quieter and calmer gradually to a whisper and faded away to – wakefulness?

Over all there was much more going on in the orchestra than I could keep up with in one hearing. Kalam and the Carolinians did an outstanding job with this challenging music and it was well received by the audience. 

The program ended with a measured and stately performance of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 37, subtitled the “Rhenish” (not Schumann’s idea) because of the thematic and spiritual affinity with the Rhineland. It was actually his second symphony chronologically and contains five movements, unusual for its time. It was one of his most successful works, possibly due to the wondrous soaring theme that opens the work after a blazing E flat major chord in the full orchestra. It is one of those themes that you hum going home even after hearing the four other movements, the zealous second movement, the playful and exuberant third, the somber and stately fourth and the vigorous and triumphant finale.

These student concerts are well worth looking forward to and celebrating by the music-loving community. It was a rainy cold night, and it is a hassle to find a parking place anywhere near Memorial Hall, but it is strongly hoped that even larger audiences will seek out this treasure through the school year.

(Edited 10/23/09.)