There is nothing comparable to the sound of a symphony orchestra, led by a knowledgeable and well trained person holding a little wand with a bit of magic in it. With nearly one hundred instrumentalists on stage in full force, including some sixty string players, the young musicians of the University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra can produce musical sounds from full-voiced lushness and excitement to intimate charm and bewitching playfulness. And when a maestro like Tonu Kalam has prepared them and leads them in performance, it is a unique treat for the crowd, as was the case in Memorial Hall, on the campus of UNC, Chapel Hill, on this cold autumn night.

The concert warmed up the audience with a blazing performance of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34. The five Spanish dances as “seen” through the ingenious Russian orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov call to mind scenes of peasants and lovers and dancers and the broad and unique Spanish culture. Just about all the instrumental principals were at their peak in the solo passages, contrasting with the full orchestra and various other combinations. Castanets, tambourines, and a variety of other percussion instruments added color and excitement to the performance. The orchestra was especially impressive with the precision of the full voiced ensemble sections, some ripping at break-neck speed but never running away from the beat or threatening to fall apart even when confronted with complex rhythms and off-beat passages. The rambunctious conclusion was controlled and balanced. All of this points to the musical and relationship skills of maestro Kalam.

Anna Magdalena, J.S. Bach’s second wife, included the lovely aria “Bist du bei mir” in her collection of favorites to provide pleasure in the circle of the Bach family and when they entertained guests. Most musicologists now attribute the piece to Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, though it is likely that Bach rewrote the continuo part. Whatever the reality, it is one of the beautiful lullabies connected to the genius of Bach. The orchestra played it in a transcription for strings and woodwinds by Thomas Frost. It was a wonderful opportunity to show off the velvety lush string sounds of this orchestra.

Without intermission, the UNCSO proceeded to one of the high marks of one of the most remarkable musical geniuses or all time. The Symphony No. 7 in A , Op. 92, sometimes called “The Dance Symphony,” by Ludwig van Beethoven, shows the master at the height of his creativity. It was written during the period from 1809 to 1812, which saw the completion of the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, the String Quartet in E-flat Major, and the Egmont Overture as well as the Eighth Symphony and significant piano sonatas, all while struggling with his fading aural acuity.

The first movement is one of the classical examples of Beethoven’s skill at thematic development. It is fascinating to hear the variety of creative ways he found to introduce his themes, to develop them, transform them, restate them, and combine them in a manner which seems to us now natural and the only way it could possibly go. Yet Beethoven in his time was always showing the musical world something new, inventive, and more complex.  Indeed it is said that when a critic complained that his music was too complex, Beethoven replied, “Complex is good!”

The slow movement moved at a good pace, communicating its funereal sadness and soaring melody of consolation in a deeply moving manner.  The charming third movement skipped away playfully like an episode that had escaped from the “Pastoral” Symphony. And the fourth movement galloped with astonishing speed around corners and up and down hills to its rousing conclusion. The orchestra seemed to get better and better as the music flourished on. Once again Kalam and his charges provided big pleasure for bargain prices. This orchestra is well worth hearing.